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"Gerald Bruns, or're of our most distinguished philosophical critics, here turns his attention to the cuttinl-edge poetry

and poetics ot the past few decades, seeh through


the prism of such theorists as Adorno, Blanchot, ahd Levinas. Bruns's readings are
everywhete animated by his profoqnd learnineiand his knowledge ofthe larger poetic tradition, For anyoyre interested in the avant-eiarde to day, Whqt Are Poets For?
is alr indispensable book."-Mariorie Pedoff, author, Uroriginqt Genius
"Gerald Bruns's learhil1fl is prodilious, and he seems hot onlyto have read but to
recall on command iust about all of even mihor aestheiic documents (and the basic
scholarship on them) since Kant. Yet he holds his learhing lightly, bringing it to bear
only wheh it is called forto illuminate a point. MoreoveF, he writes elegantly, fluidly,
and lucidly on quite difficult material, and he has excellent taste. Most important,
Bruns makes the stronlest and richest statements I know of an aestheticthat dlivesr
the work of his authoPs""
-Charles Altieri, authot, The Art of Moderu Americsn Poet*

is the William P, end Hazel B. White Professor Emeritus oI Enllish


University of Notre Dame. A prolific author, his works i nclude Modem Poetry dnd th,e
lded of Ldngudge, tnventions! Writing, Textudlity, dnd Undetstdnding in Literdrtt History,
Heftneneutics Ancientdnd Modefi, Ttdgic Thoughts dt the End ol Philosophy! Lo,r',gudge,
Literotute, dnd Ethicdl Theory,The Mdaefidl of Poetryt Sketches for d Philosophiccrl Poetics, Oo the Ancrrchy of Poetry dnd Philosophy, and On Cedsing to Be Human.ln 1974 a:nd
agaih in 1985 he received GuElgenhim fellowships end has been a fellowet the lnstitute for
Advanced Study at Hebrew University ofJerusalem (1985-1986), the Centerlor Advanced
Study ilr the Behavioral Sciences at Sta ford ('1993-1994), alrd the Stahtord Humanities
Cehter (2007-2008). ln 2OO8 he was electcd to the American AcedemyofArts ahd Sciences,
at the

tsBN l3: 978 1-6093A-0a0-9


ISBN-10: l-60934-0a0 0

Cover image from Asenlc Mctgttzine #2,1,is used


courtesy ofDavid Dellafiora and Tim Gaze-

, llillru[xl U[ilrlllll tlnu[u[tt

{&ffiffi&H-ffi A_" &SffiffiruS

WHAT ARE POETS FOR?


alr anthropology
of contemporary
and poetics

CONTEMPORARY NORTH AMERICAN POETRY SERIES


SeriesEditors Alan

Golding, Lynn Keller, and Adalaide Morris

poetny

l:.:,

l:. l( ,:'i l;i t r'

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xiii
Abbreviations xvii
WhatAre Poets For? r
Should Poetry Be Ethical or Otherwise? r8
Voices of Construction I On Susan Howe's Poetry and Poetics
(A Citational Ghost Story) 35
A PoemaboutLaughterand

Amongthe Pagans

Forgetting I Lyn Hejinian's

ABorderComedy 56

The Polyvocal PoetryofKaren MacCormack 7z

The Rogue Poet's Return

I OnlohnMatthias's PoeticAnecdotes 9r

Adding Garbage to Language I On l. H. Prynne's "Not-You" ro6


Anomalies of Duration in Contemporary Poetry rz3
Nomad Poetry | A Ludic Miscellany from Steve McCaffery r37
On the Conundrum of Form and Material I Adorno's Aesthetic Theory r5z

Notes

167

Bibliography zor

lndex zr9

Literature is a concern for the reality ofthings, for their unknown, free
and silent existence; literature is their innocence and forbidden presence,

it

is

the being which protests against revelation, it is the defiance of what

does not want to take place. In this way, it sympathizes with darkness

(l'obscuritS,with aimless passion, with Iawless violence, with everything


in the world that seems to perpetuate the refusal to come into the world.
ln this way, too, it allies itself with the reality of language, it makes
language into matter without contour, content without form, a force that
is capricious and impersonaland says nothing, reveals nothing, simply
announces-through its refusal to say anything-that it comes from the
night and will return to the night.

-Maurice

Blanchot, "Literature and the Right to Death"

One of my first attempts to write about poetry-more than half-a-century


ago-carried the title, "The Obscurity of Modern Poetry." My first book, Mod-

of the various ways in


which this topic emerged in literary history, from the ancient conception of
languagc as a "substantial medium," through St6phane Mallarm6's poetryand
ern Poetry and the ldeq ofLonguage (1974), pursued some

ix

poetics, to the writings of Joyce, Beckett, Wallace Stevens-and Maurice Blanchot, whom I began reading as an undergraduate at Marquette University in
the r95os, thanks to my Francophile roommate, Dan Finlay, and to my Jesuit
teachers, who were in those days deeply under the influence of French intellectual culture. Later came a study of Blanchot's work, particularly his theory
of d.criture-the materialization of language in fragmentary writing of the kind
that we find in the poetry of Ren6 Char and Paul Celan, as well as in Blanchot's
own work (forexample, L'attente,l'oubli1196z]). More recently, inTheMaterialof
Poetry Qoo5),1 attempted something like a traditional apology for recent experiments in sound poetry, visual poetry, and poetry as a form of conceptual
art. And inThe Anarchy ofPoetry and Philosophy (zoo6), I tried to clarifr an argument about literary modernism that turns up in different forms in the writings
of many European thinkers, namely that the work of art (one of Duchamp's
readymades, for example) is something absolutely singular, that is, outside
the alternatives of universal and particular, refractory to categories and distinctions, anarchic with respect to principles and rules: in a word, anomalous.
ln lean-Frangois Lyotard's words, modernism makes "pagans" of us all: "When
I speak of paganism," Lyotard writes, "l am not using a concept. It is a name,
neither better nor worse than others, for the denomination of a situation in
which one judges without uiteria. And one judges not only in matters of truth,
but also in matters of beauty (of aesthetic efficacy) and in matters of justice,
that is, of politics and ethics, and all without criteria."'
The present volume of essays continues this nominalist line-and tries
to cope with its consequences. For if there is no one thing that can be called

poetry-if it is made of anomalies

one-word poem, for example, or

For this reason I have often found myself following, often against the advice of mentors and friends, Walter Benjamin's program: "Good criticism is

composed of at most two elements: the critical gloss and the quotation. Very
good criticism can be made from both glosses and quotations. What must be
avoided like the plague is rehearsing the summary of the contents. In contrast,
a criticism consisting entirely of quotations should be developed."s Unfortunately exorbitant permission fees occasionally prevent one from putting good
criticism into practice.
My first chapter tries to locate some ingredients that recur in the disparate

that follow-displaced subjectivity, found texts and open forms, not to


mention the many diversions of materialized language. The second chapter
is, basically, an argument against efforts (including my own) to ground poetry upon any philosophical justification that would efface the singulariry of
its forms and events-a kind of iconoclasm that both philosophy and literary
essays

studies are prone to. As for subjectivity, a main point of interest in my chapter

on Susan Howe is her recuperation ofYeats's conception ofthe poetic subject


as a receptacle for the voices of others, which is one of the forgotten features
of romantic poetics-recall Keats's "negative capability." "For something to

work I need to be another self," Howe says. Meanwhile she locates her "self"
within a "constructivist" context of found texts and paratactic arrangements of

wordswithinthewhitespaceofthe pr:inted page (as inTh eMidnight). Found texts


and paratactic arrangements-but in very d ifferent rend itions-characterize
the work of Lyn Hejinian and Karen Mac Cormack. lohn Matthias's poetry, as
Matthias himself notes, is composed of quotations and pastiche-and of an-

collage

ecdotes: a form to which very little thought has been given. Matthias, interest-

of letters or letterlike scribbles)-then one's study of it must proceed, like an


anthropologist's progress through an alien culture, atground level, from one
local practice or artifact to another, without subsuming things into a system.'?
Of course, at ground level pitfalls and double binds are waiting at every turn:
remember the sculptor Donald Judd's famous remark: "lf someone calls it art,
it's art."r Anything goes, even if not everything is possible at every moment:
hardly an intellectually defensible thesis, at least in respectable academic circles. As a dodge I take recourse to Wittgenstein's idea that things (games, for
example, but also philosophy itself) have a history rather than an essence, and
that history is made of family resemblances, so that as one proceeds along the
ground one finds connections in which different forms of words and things
shed their light on one another.+ In this event the simple juxtaposition of citations often proves more fruitfulthan lengthy exegeses on behalf of some uni-

ingly, is an American poet who seems most at home among the British: he is
major scholar of the work of David lones, and thinks of himself as being in
perpetual transition back-and-forth between the United States and England,
neither here nor there. It seems right to place him alongside I. H. Prynne, the
recondite "Cambridge" poet whose work is influenced very much by American poets like Robert Creeley and Ed Dorn, although Prynne's way of putting
words together (if "together" isn't exactly the wrong,word) seems peculiarly
his own. The chapter on "Arrhythmia" takes up George Kubler's cha[lenge in
"The Shape of Time" to "imagine duration without any regular pattern." A
good deal of poetry-Michael Palmer's, Tom Raworth's, among others studied here-is an exercise in just such an irregular imagination. The chapter on
Theodor Adorno might at first seem out of place in this book, but much of it
takes up Adorno's essay on paratactic form in Holderlin's late hymns as well
as his essays on two experimental German poets seldom or never studied in

fied field theory.

(a

=-fl
x,l

this country, Rudolf Borchardt and Hans G. Helms. Adorno's

AestheticTheory

is perhaps the most important work of philosophical aesthetics since Kant,s


third critique and Hegel's lectures on aesthetics, but its major weakness is its
poverty of examples. Happily there is nothing impoverished about Adorno's

literary essays, which are remarkably in tune with the "nomadic" innovations
of the Yorkshire/Canadian/Buffalo poet Steve McCaffery, who reminds us that
if contemporary poetry bears anything like a distinctive feature, it is that freedom from determinations of any kind is a condition of comedy-and a form
of the good life.

owe a great deal to a number of peopre for their herp


and encouragement on

this project, particularly Marjorie perroff, Herman Rapaport,


charles Artieri,

Ralph Berry, Charles Bernstein, Dee Morris, steve Tomasula,


and John wilkinson. I remember especiaily a course on experimentar poetry
that Romana Huk
and I taught together at Notre Dame severar years ago, which
made me rearize

that, left to my own devices, r wourd never find myway through


the comprexities of contemporary poetry and poetics.
This book is for my friend Steve Fredman, in memory
of our quarter_cen_
tury ofconversations, the courses we taught together, the poetry

ieadings we

organized-not to mention the perpetual round of administrative


dJties,
committee meetings, and visiting lecturers, none of which,
to my amaze_

ment, ever seemed to defeat steve's serenity and good humor.


His writings
on American art and poetry-poet's prose (r9g3), The Grounding
poetry

(rg,,),

of Americon

A MenorohforAthena

(zoor), and Contextualpractice (zoto), among many


others have been and wirr remain the best of intelectual compl'nions.
Mcanwhilc there is his own incomparabre contribution to,.carifornia,,poetry,
\rrrslrr4

riii

(lt;7j).

Several of the chapters in this book were completed while I was a fellow
at the Stanford Humanities Center in zooT-zoo8. My thanks to lohn Bender,

oftheLabadieTracr(New Directions, zooT);to Simon larvis for permission to reprint passages from The Unconditionql: A Lyric (Barque Press, zoo5); to Eduardo

then director of the Center, and to the Center's marvelous staff, particularly

Kac

Robert Barrick, Nichole Coleman, Susan Sebard, and MatthewTiews.


Chapter z appeared in Sub5tance: A Review ofTheory and Criticism,38.3 (zoo9),
7z-gt.Chapter3 appeared inContemporaryLiterature,5o.r (zoo9), z8-53. Chapter

to reprint poems from

4 appeared inTextualPractice,23.3(zoo9), 397-416. Chapter 5 appeared in Anriphonies: Essoyson Women'sExperimentalWritinginCansds, ed. Nate Dorward (Toronto:

The Gig, zooS), rg4-2r3. Chapter 6 appeared in The Ssk Companion to John Mqt'
thios, ed. Ioe Francis Doerr (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, zotr), rz-zg. Chapter
ro appeared as "The Conundrum of Form and Material in Adorno's Aesthetic
Theo ry" in The o u r nal of Aesth etics and Art Criticism, 66. 3 (z o o8), 2z5-35.
J

l'm grateful to John Ashbery for permission to reprint the following: "Crazy
Weather" and "Syringa," from HouseboatDays. Copyright o 1975, tgzz by John
Ashbery. Reprinted by permission of Ceorges Borchardt, lnc., on behalf of the
author. "The System," fromThreePoems. Copyright @ tg7z, 1985, rgg7, zoo8 by
lohn Ashbery. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc., on behalfofthe author. "Scheherazade" and "No Way ofKnowing," from Sef-PortrqitinqConvexMirror. Copyright O 1975, rggo by John Ashbery
and Viking Penguin, lnc., reprinted by their permission. My thanks to Charles
Bernstein for permission to reprint lines from hisDarkCity (Sun & Moon Press,
tg94), RoughTrcdes (Sun & Moon Press, r99r), "Poetic lustice," RepublicsofReal'
ity,tglS-rggS(Sun & Moon Press, zooo), and WithStrings (University of Chicago
Press, zoor); to Christian Bokand Coach House Books for permission to reprint
some lines from Eunoio (zoor); to DalkeyArchive Press for permission to reprint
some Iines from Shorrer Poems (1993) by Gerald Burns; to Suhrkamp Verlag, for
permission to reprint several poems from Paul Celan's 6 esammekeWerke (Frank-

furt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1983); to Kenneth Goldsmith for permission to reprint


some passages from Soliloquy (zoor); to Tim Gaze for permission to reproduce
the image of an "asemic poem," fromAsemic, vol. r (KentTown Australia, n'd.);
to Lyn Hejinian for permission to reprint passages from A Border Comedy (Granary Books, zoor) as well as lines fromTheColdofPoerry (Sun & Moon Press, 1994),
The Fatqlist (Omnidawn Press, zoo3), My Lrfe (Sun & Moon Press, 1987), My Life
in rhe Nineties (Shark Books, zoq),Slowly (Tuumba Press, zooz), andWritingls
sn Aid to Memory (Sun & Moon Press, rgg6); to Susan Howe for permission to
reprintpoemsfromTheEuropeofTrusts:SelectedPoems

(Sun &Moon Press, 1989),

Frqmestructures:EarlyPoems,ry74-79(NewDirections,

ry96),TheMidnight(NewDi-

rections, zoo3),TheNonconformist'sMemoriol (New Directions, ry93),Pierce-Arrow


(New Directions,

999), Singularities (Wesleyan University Press, I qso), and Souls

for permission to reproduce both his digital poem, "Letter" (t996), and

his holographic poem, "Adhuc" (r99r); to Karen Mac Cormack for permission
At lssue (Coach House Books, zoor), Implexures (Chax
Press, zoo3), Quill Driver (Nightwood Editions, 1989), Quirk and Quillets (Chax
Press, r99r), andVanity Release (Zasterle Press, zoo3); to Steve McCaffery for per-

mission to reprint poems from

Seven Pages

Missing,ll: Previously UncollectedTexts,

t968-zooo (Coach House Books, zooz),SlightlyLeftofThinking(Chax Press, zoo8),


TheCheatofWords (ECW Press, 1996), andTheoriesofSedimentffalon Books, r99r);

to John Matthias for permission to reprint poems from Turns (Swallow Press,
rg75), Crossing (Swallow Press, 1979), Northern Summer: New ond Selected Poems
(SwallowPress, 1984),A6ctheringofWays (SwallowPress, tggt), SwimmingotMidnight: Selected Shorter Poems (Swallow Press, 1995), Beltane atAphelion: Longer Poems,

(Swallow Press, 1995), Poges: New Poems tr Cuttings (Swallow Press, zooo), Working
Progress,Working Tirle (Salt Publishing, zooz), New Selected Poems (Salt Publish-

ing, zoo4), Redging (salt Publishing, zooT); to Michael Palmer for permission
to reprint poems from FirstFigure (North Point Press, 1984); to l. H. Prynne for
permission to reprint "Not-You" from Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 1999); to Tom
Raworth for permission to reprint lines from Ace (Edge Books, zoot); to Wesleyan University Press for permission to reprint lack Spicer's poem, "Sporting
Life," from My Vocabulary DidThisto Me:TheCollected Poetry oflockSpicer (zoo8).
Every effort has been made to avoid errors or omissions in the above list.
Please advise if any corrections should be incorporated into any future editions of this book.

F or

full bibliographic information for these sources,

AI

Atlssue. Karen Mac Cormack.

AP

A Poetics.

AT

AestheticTheory.

Charles Bernstein.

Theodor Adorno.

Breqthturn. Paul Celan.

BC

A Border Comedy.

BM

The Birth-mark.

Crossing.

Lyn Hejinian.

susan

Th e Cold

CW

The Cheat ofWords. Steve

The Differend.

ET

x vli

rose.

Paul Celan.

Collected

CPH

owe.

ohn Matthias.

CP

DC

of Poetry. Lyn

Hejinian.
McCaffery.

lean-Frangois Lyotard.

Dork City. Charles Bernstei n.

'fht

see

Lurope of

rusrs.

Susan Howe.

the bibliography.

.:"<II

F
FB
FP
FS
GW
HD
I
lC
lM
K
Ll
LP
M
MED

Fitto Print. Alan Halsey and Karen Mac Cormack.

SL
SLT
SM

Stanzasin Medirdrion.

Framestructures. Susan Howe.

SMM

SwimmingatMidnighr.lohnMatthias.

GessmmelteWerke,l-lll.PaulCelan.

5P

Self-Portraitin

SPM

Seven Pages Missing, II. Steve

TheFatalist. Lyn

Hejinian.

FathomsunsandBenighted.PaulCelan.

HouseboatDays.fohnAshbery.
lmaginorions.

William Carlos Williams.

ThelnfiniteConversation.Maurice Blanchot.
lmplexures. Karen Mac

Cormack.

Kedging.lohnMatthias.
TheLanguageoflnquiry.LynHejinian.
LqstPoems. Paul Celan.

TheMidnight. Susan Howe.


MyEmilyDickinson. Susan Howe.

ML MyLife.LynHejinian.
MLN MyLifeintheNineties. Lyn Hejinian.
MM Minima Moralia. Theodor Adorno.
MW MyWay Charles Bernstein.
ND NegativeDialectics.TheodorAdorno.
NI Northoflntention.SteveMcCaffery.
NL NotestoLiterature.TheodorAdorno.
NM TheNonconformist'sMemorial.susan Howe.
P
Poems. . H. Prynne.
PIM Pages.JohnMatthias.
PM Priorto Meaning. Steve McCaffery.
f

PNM PhilosophyofNewMusic.TheodorAdorno.
PPC PoemsofPaulCelsn. Paul Celan.

QD
QF
aQ
RR
RT
S
SH

QuillDriver. Karen Mac Cormack.

QuasiunaFantasia.TheodorAdorno.
QuirksandQuillers. Karen Mac Cormack.
Republicsof Realiry. Charles

Bernstein.

RoughTrades.CharlesBernstein.
Sin.gulorities. Susan

Slowly. Lyn

Howe.

Hejinian.

Slighdy LeftofThinking. Steve McCaffery.

SoulsoftheLabadieTrqct.susanHowe.

Gertrude Stein.

a Convex

Mirror. John Ashbery.


McCaffery.

SPP Selected Poetry ond prose. paul Celan.


T
Turns. John Matthias.
TC Threadsuns. paul Celan.
TP ThreePoems.lohnAshbery.
TS TheoriesofSedinrenr.SteveMcCaffery.
VR Vanity Release. Karen Mac Cormack.
WF TheWorkof Fire. Maurice Blanchot.
WL WritingsandLecrures,GertrudeStein.
WP Working Progress,WorkingTitle.lohn Matthias.
WS WithStrings.CharlesBernstein.

WHAT ARE POETS FOR?

To make things of which we do not know what they are.

--{heodor

Ado

rno,

AestheticTheory

In his Prologueto RorainHell:lmprovisations $9zo), William Carlos Williams recalls his conversation one day with Walter Arensberg in which he asked Arens-

berg (one of the earliest collectors of modern art) what painters like Charles
Demuth and Marcel Duchamp were up to. As an answer Arensberg mentioned
Duchamp's idea that "a stained-glass window that had fallen out and lay more
or less together on the ground" was more likely to be of interest than anything
an artist might produce in a studio.' Williams then goes on to mention the
controversy over Duchamp'sFountqin, "the porcelain urinal fsubmitted] to the
Palace Exhibition of r9r7 as a representative of American sculpture."'A readymade anecdote follows: "One day Duchamp decided that his composition for

that day would be the first thing that struck his eye in the first hardware store
he should enter. lt turned out to be a pickax which he bought and set up in his

studio"

(1,

ro).

know, one implication of readymade aesthetics is that what defines


thc work o[ art is the displacement of intentionaliry, as if the work were less
,r wolk th:rrr arr cvcnt or discovcry something whose arrival is unpremediAs we

tated, contingent, and anomalous. Thus an improvisation, being unplanned


aland unrevised, is, formally, a fragmentary arrangement of materials: things
"the
to
point
at
one
refers
Williams
to
fall.:
happen
Iowed to stand where they
brokenness of his composition" (1, r6), ofwhich the following gives us but one
example among others assembled differently: "when beldams dig clams their
pelt,
fat hams (it's always beldams) balanced nearTellus's hide, this rhinoceros

these lumped stones-buffoonery of midges on a bull's thigh-invoke,what you will: birth's glut, awe at God's craft, youth's Poverty, evolution of
a child,s caper, man's poor inconsequence. Eclipse of all things; sun's self

turned hen's rump"

(1,

"Tellus" was a Roman


5r: a "beldam" is an old woman;

goddess ofthe earth).

what is broken here, given "whatyou will," are the rules of a schoolmaster.
Outside the classroom words have their own chemistry, "a kind of alchemy of
form,, (1, 75) for which the attendant poet provides the laboratory space of a
white page. lmagine a poetics that figures the poet as less an agent of the work
than someone who underwrites it, say by attaching a signature or a title that
gives the work, not a definition, but a place in or against an art-context. For
the philosopher Theodor Adorno, this sort of thinking reveals the distinctive
antinomy, or performative contradiction, of modernism, where the aim is to
produce an artwork that is absolutely singular, refractory to categories and distinctions, irreducible to models or to any rule of identity-a kind of monad.c
ln Williams's words, "The true value is that peculiarity that gives an object a
character by itself" (1, r4). This "aesthetic nominalism" marks the end of art as

approxisuch, that is, ofany notion ofan ideal work reflected in its particular
that
thing
one
mations (no more concrete universals).sThere is no longer any
can be called art or poetry which henceforward must draw its concepts from
posia history of local practices-as the poet Charles Bernstein says, "poetic
tions . . . have to be understood within the context of other poetic positions
that are articulated by other poets, or nonpoets, at the moment but also in the
past,, (AP, r56). Hence the modernist proliferation of prefaces and manifestos
whereby art tries to work through its antinomies, not at the level of universals,
but on the ground where controversies arise among conflicting notions as to
what counts as art ("Here I clash with wallace stevens" [], r+]). ln this respect
"conceptual art"
Korq in Hell is, like one of Duchamp's readymades, a piece of
that carries with it its own distinctive "suPport language," not only in its prologue but in the intervening "interpretations" thatWilliams added later-and
above all in its reigning statement of principle: "A poem can be made of any-

thing" (1,7o).6

Not that "anything goes," exactly. What doesn't go for Williams is the hovering of antecedents. "Our prize poems are especially to be damned," Wil-

liams says, "not because of superficial bad workmanship, but because they
are rehash, repetition-just as Eliot's more exquisite work is rehash, repetition in another way of Verlaine, Baudelaire, Maeterlinck-conscious or

unconscious-just

as there were Pound's early paraphrases from Yeats and his


later cribbing from the Renaissance, Provence, and the modern French: Men
contentwith the connotations of their masters" (1, z4). Instead of literarylanguage Williams proposes "a language of the day":

That which is heard from the lips of those to whom we are talking in our days'affairs mingles with whatever we see in the streets and everywhere about us as it
mingles also with our imaginations. By this chemistry is fabricated a language of
the day which shifts and reveals its meaning as clouds shift and turn in the sky and
sometimes send down rain or snow or hail. This is the language to which few ears

it is said by poets that flew men are ever in their [ul[ senses since
they have no way to use their imaginations. Thus to say that a man has no imagination is to say nearly that he is blind or deaf. But of old poets would translate this
hidden language into a kind of replica of the speech of the world with certain distinctions oIrhyme and meter to show that it was not really that speech. Nowadays
the elements of that language are set down as heard and the imagination of the
listener and the poet are left free to mingle in the dance. (1, 59)
are tuned so that

Two things are worth noticing about this passage. The first is that Williams's

imagination is not Wordsworth's "awful Power" rising from "the mind's


abyss" (The Prelude,Yl.Sgq); it is simply a perceptual keenness toward everyday

sights and sounds. The second is that "the language ofthe day" is structured
like the weather ("clouds shift and turn in the sky and sometimes send down

rain or snow or hail"); it is, like an improvisation, turbulent and unpredictable ("brokenness" of composition)-but not just nonsense. Chaos theorists would call it a "complex entity."7 Poets "of old" tried to introduce some
measure of order into this complexity, but now the task is not to organize this
language poetically but simply to "set [it] down as heard." And so what we get
From Williams-as, in a slightly different turn, from his contemporary Marianne Moore-are plain words whose order is not metrical, nor perhaps even
syntactical, but open-ended, as in a run of anomalies.

Here are some lines from Marianne Moore's "Poetry," which begins (fanrously), "l too dislike it":
thc sanre thing may be said for all of us, that we
<lo rrot adnrire

what

we cannot understand: the bat

holding on upside down or in quest of something to


eat, elephants pushing,

wild horse taking

roll,

tireless

tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse

that feels a flea, the baseball fan, the

statistician-

nor is it valid
to discriminate "against business documents and
school books": all these phenomena are important.s

ln an essay on Marianne Moore, Williams wrote: "The only help I ever got
from Miss Moore toward the understanding of herverse was that she despised
connectives" (1, 3r3)-a point later amplified by Iohn Ashbery in a review of
Moore's TellMe,Tell

Me: Granite,Steel, and

}therTopics (rg6q):

Some of us will regret the kaleidoscopic collage effects of the early poems, and
with reason for they were also a necessary lesson in how to live in our world of
"media," how to deal with the unwanted information that constantly accumulates around us. What can we do about those stack of Nationol Geogrophics, leaflets

from the BellTelephone Company, the IllustrotedLondonNews,the NewYorkTimesMogozine, business letters, overheard remarks, and also the habits ofjungle flora and
fauna, which we shall probably never see and which in any case can never concern
us? Well, live with them is Miss Moore's answer, recognizing them as part of the
rhythm of growth, as details of life possibly helpful in deducing the whole, in any
case

in a state of restless experimenting. Ofleaf through popular magazines, [ookthe


American
Library
and
ten I'd visit
ing for the tone of voice I felt was lacking. Or I'd buy magazines like Esquire and
look through them, copying down random bits of phrases in a sort of collage
technique-unaware that about the same time Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and
Gregory Corso were practicing doing "cut-ups" elsewhere in Paris. lt's an odd coincidence that we all happened on this way of writing at that particular time and
For the next two or three years, I lived

wolf under
a

ln his "Robert Frost Medal Address" (rggs), Ashbery recalls thatwhile living in
France during the r95os he "began to realize how much the spoken American
language . . . had entered into mywriting":

important, in any case important

as details.e

place.

(Selected Prose,

z5o)

Found texts, assemblage, collage: Ashbery's HouseboatDays (1977) contains the


following poem that begins with an American catchphrase, "crazy weather":
It's this crazy weather we've been having:
Falling forward one minute, lying down the next

Among the loose grasses and soft, white, nameless flowers.


People have been making

garment out of it,

Stitching the white of lilacs togetherwith lightning


At some anonymous crossroads. The sky calls
To the deafearth. The proverbial disarray

Of morning corrects itself

as

you stand up.

You are wearing a text. The lines

Droop to your shoelaces and I shall never want or need


Any other literature than this poetry of mud
And ambitious reminiscences of times when it came easily

Here is the basic question of complexity: "how to deal with the unwanted in-

formation that constantly accumulates around us"? The problem is not nonsense but t00

m uchsense,

the philosophical solution to which is to reduce things

to their basic types, categories, or essentials: integration of elements into a


unity is the standard received definition of intelligibility (the "hermeneutical
circle"). Marianne Moore's procedure by contrast is nonreductive: within or
amongthescatterofcategorymistakes(bats, elephants, critics, baseball fans),
even "business documents" and "school books" matter. lmagine nonexclusion as a principle ofpoetic diction: such a principle defeats the very idea of
apoetical diction, which historically is a closed system that rules out ducks and
toads as ingredients of a true poem. But for Marianne Moore, as for Wi[liams,
"A poem can be made of anything."

Through the then woods and ploughed fields and had


A

simple unconscious dignitywe can never hope to

Approximate now except in narrow ravines nobody

Will inspect where some late sample of the rare,


Uninteresting specimen might still be putting out shoots,
for all we know. (HD, zt)

Weather is a major preoccupation of chaos theory which celebrates the rationality of turbulence, as does Ashbery's poem, whose first line answers (at least
is causing this anomaly?The poem itself
anomaly-machine, producing things of which we do not know what they
are. "Falling forward" and "lying down," for example, are a bit like "lt is raining," whcre "it" is a phantom subject, a purely functional occupant of what

formally) a request fora reason: What


is an

upscale grammarians call the "middle voice." And then there is the problem

of "nameless flowers" (whatwould Louis Zukofsky have said of such things?).'o


Meanwhile you can make a "garment" out of the weather by talking about it,
as people do in the absence of anything else to

say-recall ancient rhetoric

in which words are the "clothes" and "colors" of things, although "white" is
a shifry or anomalous word, especially when "Stitching the white of lilacs together with lightning," thus producing a name given to moonshine and rock
bands. lnterestingly, "anonymous crossroads," besides echoing "nameless
flowers," are where suicides used to be buried, ideally against a gothic background of lightning and thunder. The indifferent earth is their shield against
a vengeful heaven. Speaking of garments: rumpled pajamas will right themselves when you get to your feet; but if they are (still) a garment of words, well
then, "You are wearing a text."
Ashbery doesn't entirely "despise connectives," but in the tradition of
"broken composition" his lines form periods filled with insubordinations:
"The lines / Droop to your shoelaces," as if wet, and, being wet, form, of all
things, a literary plenum, than which none greater can be desired: a "poetry of
mud" conjoined to "ambitious reminiscences of times" when another phantom "it" ambled through what were once "woods and ploughed fields"-all
quite beyond us now. Have we become too thoroughly modern, or modernized? No longer believing in the folklore of "crazy weather"? Time to repair
elsewhere-to "narrow ravines" where horticulturalists never tread, but
where ("for all we know") some "rare, / Uninteresting specimen" of we-don'tknow-what might be starting life or poetryall overagain, as in these lines from
"Scheherazade":
Other dreams came and leftwhile the bank
Of colored verbs and adjectives were

shrinking from the Iight

prose poem (or poem in prose) "The System," which begins with a straightforward statement: "The system was breaking down" (TP, 53).'' ln which case-

Whatdid matter nowwas gettingdown to business, or back to the business ofdayto-day living with all the tiresome mechanical problems that this implies. And it
was just here that philosophy broke down completely and was of no use. How to
deal with the new situations that arise each day in bunches or clusters, and which
resist categorization to the point where any rational attempt to deal with them is
doomed from the start. And in particular how to deal with this one that faces you
now, which has probabty been with you always; now it has a different name and a
different curriculum vitae; its qualities are combined in such a way as to seem different from all that has gone before, but actually is the same old surprise you have
always lived with. Forget about the details o[name and place, forget also the concepts and archetypes that hauntyou and are as much a part ofthe q,pical situation
you find yourself in as those others: neither the concept nor the state of affairs
logically deduced from it is going to be of much help to you now. (TP, 87)

Notice: another question about complexity-"How to deal with the new situations that arise each day in bunches or clusters, and which resist categorization to the point where any rational attempt to deal with them is doomed
from the start." The answer is coherent with aesthetic nominalism. Resisting categorization is the way mere things (and artworks) turn philosophy on
its ear, thereby keeping their freedom.'3 What breaks down inThree Poems, as
in so much of Ashbery's writing, is the subsumption of particulars, of which
there are too many for concepts to bear.'c In place ofcontext-formation we get

something [ike context-dispersal (fragmentation), as in the heterogeneous


sentence that concludes"Crazy Weather," or this from a poem aptly entitled
"No Way of Knowing":
Yes,

but-there

are no "yes, buts."

To nurse in shade their want of a method

The body is what this is all about and it disperses

But most of all she loved the particles

In sheeted fragments, all somewhere around

That transform objects ofthe same category

But

lnto particular ones, each distinct

No common vantage

Within and apart from its own class.

(SP, 9)

lmagine Scheherazade as Gertrude Stein ("And therefore and I say it again


more and more one does not use nouns")." ln fact these lines describe something like Ashbery's philosophy of composition, in which plain words are
turned loose from their propriery or "aboutness": call it an anarchic poetics
in which meaning proliferates into singularities, "each distinct / Within and
apart from its own class"-a common event at ground level, as in Ashbery's

difficult to read correctly since there is


point, no point ofview

Like the

"l" in a novel. And in truth

No one never saw the

point ofany.

(SP, 56)

I hink of itl-a pointless (or empty) vantage point, as from inside a storm that
spreads itselF in "sheeted fragments." Complex entities, being unstable, give

tlre definition of the uncontainable, or ungraspable, like Eurydice. "Syringa,"


title is the name of a (nonwhite) lilac, but which is about the
Irrtility of bcing Orpheus, exhibits an even wilder complexity:

;r l)ocrn whose

r! i:i fi il

But how late to be regretting all this, even

Rewrite someone else's writing. Experiment with theft and plagiarism.

Bearing in mind that regrets are always late, too latel


To which Orpheus, a bluish cloud

Systematically derange the language: write

with white contours,

al phrases, or, add

Replies that these are ofcourse not regrets at all,


Merely a careful, scholarly setting down

Unquestioned facts, a record ofpebbles along the way.

gotwhere itwas going, it is no longer

Matters too much, and not enough, standing there helplessly

While the poem streaked by, its tail afire, a bad

included writers like Raymond Queneau, ltalo Calvino, Harry Mathews, and
Georges Perec-this last the author of LaDisporotion, a novel of some 3oo pages

Comet screaming hate and disaster, but so turned inward


That the meaning, good or other, can never
Become known. (HD,7r)

(ofelectronic music and otherturbulent artworks) Herbert Briln

that there is one sort of complex entity that "prefers its problems to its solutions," and will resort to violence in order to prevent solutions from being

says

attempted.rsAshbery's swiftly movingpoem seems to qualifr as such an entity:

it

a work consisting only of prepositiongerund to every line ofan already existingwork.

Naturally the question arises as to the point of these assignments. Taking the
last sentence of this citation as a cue, one could refer to Williams's improvisations, or (in a different register) to the proceduralwritings of the Oulipo group
(the }uvroir de littd,rature potentielle, or Workshop of potential Literature, which

Material for a poem. lts subject

The composer

Get a group ofwords, either randomly selected or thought up, then form these
words (only) into a piece of writing-whatever the words allow. Let them demand
their own forms, or, use some words in a predetermined way.,z

of

And no matter how all this disappeared,


Or

i:e

leaves "all this" behind, as Orpheus does Eurydice, except that Orpheus in

these lines is a speaking cloud, as gods sometimes are. Actually each line of the

poem leaves its subject behind, breaking as it goes the law ofnoncontradiction, among other rules of composition: "all this" matters "too much, and not
enough," as the violent poem streaks past, "a bad / Comet screaming hate and
disaster" at the poor exegete who tries to take hold of it.

in which the letter "e" never appears).,8 In both cases the basic idea (as perWilliams) is to expand the possibilities of composition by distributing the inten-

tionality of the work across impersonal regions of language. Oulipovians, for


example, subject the act of writing to sets of purely formal constraints: palindromes, lipograms, anagrams, acrostics, crosswords, including compositions
modeled on mathematical rules and equations.re The Canadian poet Christian
Bdk gives us a contemporary rendition of procedural poetics in Eunoia, a lipogrammatic poem in five parts, one for each vowel, as in the following from
"Chapter A," dedicated appropriately to the Dadaist Hans Arp:
Awkward grammar appals a craftsman. A Dada bard
as daft as Tzara damns stagnant art and scrawls an

alpha (a slapdash arc and a backward zag) that mars


all stanzas and jams all batlads (what a scandal). A
In the early r97os the poet Bernadette Mayer conducted a poetry workshop at

madcap vandal crafts a small black ankh-a handstamp that can stamp a wax pad and at last plant a

5t. Mark's Church, which for several years had sponsored a number of avantgarde projects in poetry, dance, theater, and film.'6 Among her pedagogical

charts a phrasal anagram).

exercises was an extensive list of "Experiments," of which the following is a

sage (a Mahabharata), as a papal cabal blackbal[s all

brief sampling:

annals and tracts, all dramas and psalms: Kant and

Pick a word or phrase at random, let mind play freely around


have come up, then seize on one and begin to write. Try this

it until

with

a few ideas

non-connota-

tive word like "so," etc.


Systematically eliminate the use of certain kinds of words or phrases from a piece

of writing: eliminate alt adjectives from a poem of your own, or take out all the
words beginning with "s" in Shakespeare's sonnets.

mark that spark an

ars m0gn0

(an abstract art that

A pagan

skald chants

Kafka, Marx and Marat. A law as harsh as


all paragraphs that lack an

A as a

a fonaro

dark

bans

standard hallmark.,o

As B<ik says, the paradox of Oulipianism is that rule-following can produce

unforeseen events: "even a machinic calculus has the potential to generate


the novelty of anomaly."'' We'll return to this paradox in a moment, probably
withorrt hopc oIrcsolving it.

-'.:I

Meanwhile a hard-core conceptualist like Sol Lewitt (r9zg-zoo7) would say


that Mayer's "writing experiments" need not be put into practice at alI because
an ideo for an artwork is already itself a work of art: "The idea itself, even if not
made visual, is as much a work of art as any finished product.', In fact, Lewitt
,'Concepadds, the "realization" of an artwork is conceivably

self-defeating:
tual art is meant to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or emotions. The physicality of a three-dimensional object then becomes a contradiction to its non-emotive intent."., On this theory, a conceptual poem is an
artifact in a possible world. Transposing it to our world, that is, reducing it to a
material work, however striking, might just be the way to destroy it. Recall the
poem Hart Crane once imagined, one that gives "the reader a single, new word,
never before spoken and impossible actually to enunciate, but self-evident
as an active principle in the reader's consciousness.".3 Unfortunately Crane
does not say anything about what the experience ofsuch a word would be like.
Perhaps it would simply take the form of an alien visitation-something on
the order of lack Spicer's idea that "there is an Outside to the poet,,,who is a
passive rather than expressive subject: someone taking dictation or receiving
signals like a

radio-or taking punches, rather too many of them:

The trouble with comparing a poet with a radio is that radios

don't develop scar-tissue. The tubes burn out, or with a


transistor, which most souls are, the battery or diagram
burns out replaceable or not replaceable, but not like that
punchdrunk fighter in the bar. The poet

where everything ends in confusion.'s At any rate,


spicer's poet is croser to
Plato's ludic schizoid than to Aristotle,s
cool plot_maker.
speaking ofradios, there is (at reast conceptuaily)
a genearogicar rine from

Jack spicer (t925-65) to Kenneth Gordsmith


lb. rgor), whose wiitings consist
of transcriptions offound texts, includingwhat
is said on the radio, ,-, in cotasmith's Trilog: weather (zoo5), which transcribes year,s
a
worth of a radio station's daily weather reports; Troffrc (zoo7) is made
of traffic reports broadcast
on a New york radio station during one day ofa
horiday weekend; sporr (zooa)

gives us the play-by-pray broadcasr

ofa yankees basebail game.,6 (Recail irre st.

Mark's church assignmenil "Experiment with


theft and pragiarism.,,) s oritoquy,
meanwhile, is a transcription of everyword (in
ract, orever!sound) uttered by
Goldsmith during the course of a week. This is not
a diarogic text, but simpry
the edited tape of coldsmith's noises, ail words
ofothers hiving been dereted.
A portion ofhis talk, describingthe projectjustas
itgets undeiway, provides
the work's "support language,,;
Here's a here's a new project I,m working on.
OK? l,m taking a leap of language.

l'm recording everything r'm saying for an entire week.


I mean it no, t,m ltways

taking

[sic] about the vorume of language that's around I mean what


wourd your
language look like ifit was you coilecteJ
every piece ofshitword thatyou said for
an entire week. yeah and what wourd it rook
like and you know what form would

it you know it say you just printed it out and put


it in a big stack and it,s a visual
representation oFall the crap thatyou speak
in a week. That see there it,s a visual
representation of language.,z

Takes too many messages. The

right to the ear that floored him


in New lersey. The right to say that he stood six rounds with
a champion.

Then they sell beer or go on sporting commissions, or, if the


scar tissue is too heavy, demonstrate in a bar where the

invisible champions might not have hit him. Too many

of

them.
The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is
counterpunching radio.

And those messages (God would not damn them) do not even

know they are champions.,+

The "outside," whatever or wherever it is, is clearly not inhabited by schoolmasters. It is a complex entity, overloading the poet with mixed metaphors

that unfold like episodes in a serial or rounds in a fight (or a drinking bout)

"set down as heard," in ail of its turbulence.


The fuil text of soriroquy comes to
nearly 5oo pages, which means that the reading
of the work would be some_
thing of a school assignment-cordsmith himserf
remarks on the deadry tedium ofhaving to proofread the text (twice). A friend
ornis suggesreiiirr,t
printed book could simpry be exhibited in a galrery
as pieces of instailation art."

Goldsmith regards this as a "dumb" idea-but "to


do a z4-hour reading of the
book in the gallery would be interes ting,, (Soliloquy,
16). Interesring for i,homl
However, as Coldsmith explains in a talk entitled ..Being
Uoing,, (zoo4),
"You really don't need to read my books
to get the idea of what thly,re rike,
you just need to know the generar concept."28
(rn other wordr, ,,,"nd at reast
to the "support language.") Gordsmith identifies
his work as ,,conceptuarwriting," where "the idea becomes a machine that
makes the text.,,rs such writing,
he says, "is not necessarily rogicar," but rike
oulipianism it is procedurar (or
"nrodular"): the writer's task is to
serect the form that,,becomes the gramma.

13

12

for the total work" ("Paragraphs," ro9). Any actual writing-down could be left
to one's scribes or apprentices. lndeed, the purpose of the text's bulk seems
precisely to throw the idea behind the work into the foreground by making
the prospect ofreading seem like a Sisyphusian project, or at least a gauntlet
meant to separate critical readers from mere idlers.:o
What is interesting about Goldsmith's "writing" is that what looks like a
closed system-composition according to rule-works like a complexity, the
more so when the transcription is of events rather than of finished texts. Goldsmith's Day (zoq), to be sure, reproduces a day's edition of the New York Times
(September t, zooo), but Doy is basically a second-order transcription, since a
newspaper is itself a record of the passing show, like Goldsmith's Fidget, which
tracks a day's worth of Goldsmith's own bodily movements-movements that
grow increasingly complex (or chaotic, or maybe just boring) as the day draws
to a drunken close.3'

In an essay entitled "Art in a Closed Field" (1962), Hugh Kenner argued that
the invention of the printing press produced a culture defined by such
things as books, dictionaries, enryclopedias, and a systematic conception of
language-language conceived as a finite set of elements and rules for combining them into self-contained objects.r'Such a culture did not (pace Henry
James) generate a literature of loose and bagry monsters; rather it gave us
Custave Flaubert's dream ofa "book about nothing," a work held together by
purely formal relations, indifferent to anything save its own possibility; lames
loyce's Ulysses, a book made of dictionaries, directories, records, maps, and
(above all) a system of correspondences in which each word is, to the attentive
ear, an echo every other; and Samuel Beckett's Wort, where Watt is (as Watt's
interlocutor, Sam, experiences him) something of an aphasic whose speech
follows not the rules of grammar but an exhaustive series of mathematical
permutations:
Then he took it into his head to invert, no longer the order ofthe words in the sen-

ofthe letters in the word, nor that ofthe sentences in the period,
nor simultaneously that of the words in the sentence and that of the letters in the
word, nor simultaneously that of the words in the sentence and that of the sentences in the period, nor simultaneously that of the letters in the word and that of
the sentences in the period, nor simultaneously that of the letters in the word and
that ofthe words in the sentence and that ofthe sentences in the period, ho no,
but, in the briefcourse ofthe same period, now that ofthe words in the sentence,
now that of the letters in the word, now that of thc scnt('nc('s in tltc period, now
tence, nor that

simultaneously that of the sentences in the period, now simultaneously that of


the words in the sentence and that of the letters in the word, now simultaneously

that of the words in the sentence and that of the sentences in the period, now
simultaneously that of the letters in the word and that of the sentences in the period, and now simultaneously that of the letters in the word and that of the words
in the sentences and that ofthe sentences in the period.::

"l recall,"

Sam says, "no example of this manner" (Watt, 169). Watt is,

in his

way, a conceptual artist, or an Oulipovian beside the fact.

Interestingly, Kenner remarks in passing (he was, in fact, among the first
to notice) that "American literature . . . has always tended to reject" analogies
between writing and closure, and this is especially true of American poetry
since Williams, which "has patterned itself aggressively on speech, not print,
and furthermore not the speech of conversation, which is always in danger of
falling into a closed set of patterns . . . , but rather the speech ofwhat is sometimes called spontaneity but is actually just naked utterlnce, spontaneous or
premeditated" (6o9)-rather like Goldsmith's Soliloquy, where the spatiality of
the closed field gives way to the temporality of things that, like Spicer's serials,
stop but do not end. Think of Beckett's Unnamable as-what?-an inversion
of Watt, and Goldsmith's prototype.
To speak strictly, however, Coldsmith's transcriptions, particularly Soliloquy
and Fidget, cannot help reducing events to spatial form, whose boundaries
Goldsmith has explored in search of an exit, which he finally finds in digital
technology's eradication of the page. In his conversation with Marjorie Perlofi he writes: "ln my practice, I've come to believe that language by its nature
is fluid and will assume any form it's poured into. Hence my production has
taken the form of everything from gallery installations to computer programs
to couture dresses to CDs and books, all using the same language. Before the
computer, language was much less fluid and it was almost impossible to coax
off the page. Reproducing technologies such as Xerox just gave you more
language glued to the page. Now, once language is digitized, its transportive
and morphic tendencies are foreground. Great chunks oflanguage have been
melted and are free to assume a myriad of forms" ("A Conversation," 9).
Recall Williams's idea that words have their own autonomy, and that what
the poet provides is a place for them to sit down. Now we see that the page
is itself a closed field, however open words might themselves try to remain
in the "what you will" of their assembly. The typographical experiments of
nrodernism-from St6phane Mallarm6's Un Coup de Dis (r897) through lsidore
lsou's l-ettristcs to the various forms of visual and concrete poetry that have
llorrrishc<l sincc thc r96os attcnrpted to keep the page open by rejecting the

idea of language as any form of mediation.3a A poem is made of words, not


ideas, and words, at bottom, are made of ink-as in Rosaire Appel's "wordless" poems orTim Gaze's Asemic writing.:s

Digital technology (if l, a Luddite, have it right) liberates poetry from the
fixity of ink by mobilizing it within a four-dimensional electronic space. In an
essay titled "Holopoetry" (19g6) the digital artist Eduardo Kac writes:
Holopoetry belongs to the tradition ofexperimental poetry and verbal art, but it
treats the word as an immaterial form, that is, as a sign that can change or dissolve into thin air, breaking its formal stiffness. Freed from the page and freed
from other palpable materials, the word invades the reader's space and forces him
or her to read it in a dynamic way; the reader must move around the text and find
meanings and connections the words establish with each other in empty space.
Thus a holopoem must be read in a broken fashion, in an irregular and discontinuous movement, and it will change as it is viewed from different perspectives.36
The holopoem, in other words, is a virtual text that moves and changes as the

it, thus giving Williams's practice of "broken composition," not to mention the concept of a complex entity, a new turnreader wanders through

something one might compare to a funhouse tour, since the reader, however
much now a collaborator of sorts, remains (rather like Spicer's poet) subject
to the words themselves, or at least to the letters (or digits) that endlessly reshape themselves and their environment.3T
To be sure, any form is inevitably caught in the double bind of its technology, which limits or confines what it makes possible-witness the difficulty
of citing a holopoem; "Because of their irreducibility as holographic texts,"
Kac writes, "holopoems resist vocalization and paper reproduction. Since the
perception of the texts changes with viewpoint, they do not possess a single
'structure' that can be transposed or transported to and from another medi-

um" ("Holopoetry," t3213). The best one can do is to make a film of such a
poem, which Kac has done in the case of several of his works.38 A mere photograph (see figure 2, a stop-frame of Eduardo Kac's "Letter") simply turns the
work back into a piece of visual poetry.
Marjorie Perloff's book Poetry 0n E }ffthe Page concludes with a chapter on
the video artist Bill Viola, who makes the claim that one of his pieces is "a
form of visual poetry." At which point Perloff asks: "What makes such an installation 'poetic'?" Her speculation is that Viola's videos, however visual, are
something other than "retinal art, " and that the nonlinearity of contemporary
poetry is an example of this "other.":s Similarly, Eduardo Kac claims allegiance
to "the tradition of experimental poetry and verbal art," not bccause his art

dd &. tg

,q$l%e1s'\\'

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j: ;; I i! i. :?

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ii

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"poetical" (or even linguistical), but because ofthe way it executes the concepts of turbulence, nonidentity, and open form:
is

{k$N

In its reaction against fixed structures, holographic poetry creates a space where
the linguistic factor ofsurfaces is disregarded in favor ofan irregular fluctuation
ofsigns that can never be grasped at once by the reader. This turbulent space, with
bifurcations which can take on an indefinite number of rhythms, allows for the
creation of what I call textual instability. By textual instabilig, I mean precisely
the condition according to which a text does not preserve a single visual structure
in time as it is read by the viewer, producing different and transitory verbal configurations in response to the beholder's perceptual exploration. ("Holopoetry,"

.g*offi

$""5S*"-ouq$U$-

Bs-tq)

*W

One might put it this way: it is as if holopoetry transported us through a look-

\Wxe)

ing-glass back into the legendary khdra, Plato's aboriginal space of proliferating structures on the hither side of any formal order, a receptacle whose anarchic purpose is to maintain itself in a perpetual neither/nor (neither eidos

nor

^W

kosmos)

in which no one is anything and everything is otherwise (imaeus,

5ta-5zc).ao

Not surprisingly, I'm reminded of Gertrude Stein's line, "l have lost the
thread of my discourse," to which she adds: "it does not matter if we find it"
(SM, r55).

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to link up poetry and the political-the critical mandate from the r97os and

room-the articulation of poetry and ethics carries with it, certainly with the best of intentions,
an attempt to provide poetry with a justification that it may neither want nor
need-nor, for all of that, entertain as a possibility. fhe ghost of Aristotle
spooks the whole project. What if poetry, at least in some of its versions, only
gets interesting when it is in excess of its reasons for being?
r98os whose force is still felt both in and out of the seminar

number of writers, myself included, have proposed for better or worse that
there are at least two conceptions ofthe "ethical" to choose from in our current intellectual environment (which is two too few, Badiou would say). One
goes back to Kant and has to do with the application of principles or rules as
A

SHOULD POETRY BE .ETHICAL


OR OTHERWISE?

Ein Zeichen

A sign

Kemmt es zusammen

combs it together

zurAntwort aufeine
grlbelnde Felskunst.

to answer

-Paul

Celan,

brooding rockart.

"MitMikrolithen gespickte" (GWll,

237)

to what is right and good. These rules are either universal, or, as in Hegel's
theory, they comprise the Sittlichkeir, the moral customs, of integrated communities. In either event the point of ethics is to enable one to rise and remain
above reproach in one's actions, beliefs, and character (at ease with the face
in the mirror). Self-possession, or autonomy for short, is the principal ethical ideal. To this normative theory the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas
offered an alternative by arguing that the claims other people have on me are
in advance of whatever reasons I might use to justifi my conduct. I am responsible for the good of the other come what may: that is, my responsibility is anarchic, on the hither side of moral principles and the reasonings that provide
their support-which means, among other things, that my relation to others
is not one of knowing but, as Levinas likes to put it, one of proximity, as of skin

ln recent years there has been a good deal of important work on the relation
between poetryand ethics.' Notsurprisingly, oneconclusion to bedrawn from
this materialis thatthe relation between poetry and ethics is highly conflicted,

exposed to the touch.aThis reversal of subjectivity is crucial. Being approached

not simply because of the conceptual instability of the terms in question-

"happens" as an event oftranscendence ("otherwise than being, or beyond essence," as Levinas's motto has it: outside the grasp ofconcepts and categories).
Kantian ethics appears more utopian (more in tune with bourgeois comforts)

"Ethics does not exist," says Alain Badiou'-but also because any effort of con-

junction threatens to limit the autonomy that opens the practice of poetry to
its multifarious futures. (On my desk, as I write this, is a copy of the TimesLiter'
ory Supplement containing a review, entitled "The Poetry of Ethics," of Geoffrey
Hill's Collected CriticalWritings. The reviewer, Adam Kirsch, notes that ever since
his first book of poems, published in 1959, "Hill has been concerned with the
ethics of poetry. What, if anything, makes it morally acceptable to write po-

etry in an age dominated by suffering and evil?"3 The word "barbarism" has
had poetry under surveillance for at least the last half-century.) Like the effort

IB

or addressed by the other, not the cogiro, makes me what I am, namely someone who exists in the accusative, not so much an I as a me to whom the other

than does Levinas's theory, but a Levinasian would argue that ethical respon-

sibility belongs to the economy of the gift rather than to systems of exchange
and their returns on investment (where the good I do for others puts them in
nry debt). The ethicaI is, whatever else it is, a critique of these systems, along
with their presiding icon: the disengaged punctual ego exercising rational
( ontrol over its possessions.s The ethical subject, by contrast, is an offering,
,r

nrovcnlclrt oIorre-for-the-other. Sometimes Levinas figures this movement

20

21

on the hither side of language, that is, prior to predication


production
of the Said (le Dit).6 Saying is not self-expression (except perhaps
or
in the literal sense of self-expulsion); in one of Levinas's favorite similes, it is a
turning ofoneselfinside-out "like a cloak."7
as a Saying (le Dire)

rH

Dftppnee"eantsanegcintineoep emfnemtn t'e'w'aswen

toTT pr'-kkePrym l

("

Lift Ofl' [RR, r7a])

My weight becomes something that neither holds me down nor gives me release

the stomach hair eyes all set themselves in


say as Susan says

shimmering

is

separate way downflow you might

too strong an end note not that this particular

bulb or cube doesn'tglow but that figuration almost too overwhelms, which

Arguably there is an open boundary (or crack) between poetry and Levinasian
ethical theory in the sense that poetry seems to have long since broken with
any analytic culture of principles and rules, together with the various concepts ofmastery and authority that such a culture sponsors, as in the universal
supervision ofparticulars. There is no one thing that can be called "poetr),"
neither now nor at least since the start ofthe last century when, as Adorno
says, artworlds began producing "things of which we do not know what they
are" (AT, rr4). ln which case it follows that there are no criteria by which anything could be set aside as nonpoetic-an anarchic state of affairs in which
poets like Charles Bernstein have flourished for a seemingly endless number
ofyears. Here is a samplingof brief passages from some of Bernstein's poems
in an early collection entitled, appropriately or otherwise, Poeticlustice (r979):
Listen.

I can

feeI it. Specificatly and intentionally. It does hurt. Gravity weighing

it down. lt's not too soft. I like it. Ringing like this. The hum. Words peeling. The
one thing. ("Palukavitle" IRR, ra5])
One problem with a fragment sitting. Wave I stare

as

well at that only as if this all

and not form letting it but is it. ("Lo Disfruto" [RR, r+8])
its the DENSE
stU Ff again

that shlt i cANt UN DErstAnd when yOu gO oN that way ("elecTric"

Bernstein's work is, whatever else it is, a persistently comic investigation


of the idea that there are more ways of putting words together than can be
contained within the standard received model of a (unitary) speaking voice.
This is the form his iconoclasm takes. His poetry suggests a more complex and
decidedly more porous and ludic subjectivity than the linguistic concept of a
speaker can contain; it is one that belongs to a history of poetry made of different conceptions of what voices are and where they come from, whether from
gods, demons, the other minds in one's head, a good library, or the channels,
circuits, airways, and back alleys of mass (and mis-) communication. All of the
above and a good deal more apply in Bernstein's case, since what characterizes

his poetry is not the disappearance of the voice (as one of the graphic stews
above might suggest) but its wild, heterogeneous proliferation in forms of
pastiche, parody, and manic impersonation-poetic madness as madcap-as

in "The Age of Correggio and the Carracci" (from Wrrh Strings), whose title has
no bearing on the poem, unless we imagine something baroque about Bernstein's paratactic interruptions. The poem in any event breaks up the idiom of
a familiar kind of letter:
Thanks foryour ofalready some
weeks ago. Things
very much back to having returned

IRR, r5a])

to a life that

izwurry ray aZoOt de puund in reducey ap crrRisle ehk nugkinj sluxYY senshl. lg
si heh hahpae uvd r fahbeh aht si gidrid. ("Azoot D'Puund" [RR,16r])
all that on

cries out for some quieter moment ("Faculty Politics" [RR, r77])

fall that sweats in it upon layers of, and if, the on, just a, silk, soiled,

crying down the banisters, mommy, mommy, the cornflakes, the stale beer in

(regrettably) has very little in


common with,

totatly bright few


or something like

it. Was

the hall ("'OutofThis Inside"' [RR, r65])

delighted to get

HH/ie,sobVrsxr;atjrn dugh seineopcv i iibalfmgmMw er,, me"ius

ieigorcyCjeuvine+pee.)a/na.t" ihl"n,s

allcorrtinues, well

ortnsihcldseloopitemoBruce-Oiwvewaa3gosoanfl ++, r"

most remarkable & am assuming

thcrcabouts. (WS, r9)

22

23

Bernstein describes his work as "a mix of different types of language pieced
together as a mosaic-very 'poetic' diction next to something that sounds
overheard, intimate address next to philosophical imperatives, plus a mix of
would-be proverbs, slogans, jingles, nursery rhymes, songs" (MW, z5*26). To
which one should add: puns, jokes, goofr wordplay-"mentality / drives the
/ spoon" ("Epiphanies of Suppression" [RT, r9]-Bernstein's poems won't
leave home without them. ln the essay "Comedy and the Poetics of Political
Form" Bernstein refers to such goofiness as "acting out, in dialectical play, the
insincerity of form. . . . Such poetic play does not open into a neat opposition
between dry high irony and wet lyric expressiveness but, in contrast, collapses
into a more destabilizingfield of pathos, the ludicrous, schtick, sarcasm. . .
where linguistic shards of histrionic inappropriateness pierce the momentary

be uncovered without any defense, to be delivered over";.'o Bernstein's verse

calm of an obscure twistof phrase" (AP,zzo).8


"lnsincerity of form" is a curious phrase, but perhaps it only means that
form is not "expressive" in the sense that Susanne Langer gave this term in
Feeling and Form,

of

where the work of art is said to reflect the dynamic structures

feeling-growth

and attenuation, conflict and resolution, speed and arrest,

and so on.e Form for Bernstein is, after all, not formal but materialized: an ale-

atory mixture of found sounds and incongruous words ("linguistic shards of


histrionic inappropriateness": Bernstein is not Rousseau, or Geoffrey Hill)A poem should not mean but impale

otherwise-call it "vociferous," or "vociferential," or "ventrilocolloquial": very much like the Shakespeare of whom Samuel lohnson complained that the quibble "has some malignant power over his mind" ("Preface
is entirely

to Shakespeare"). According to the 0ED, a quibble originally meant "ethically


dubious matter." One of Bernstein's "Fragments from the Seventeenth Manifesto of Nude Formalism" reads: "Poetry has as its lower limit insincerity and
its upper limit dematerialization," which is to say that materiality is the condition in which insincerity thrives." By contrast a "dematerialized" poetry is one
that presumably can rise (and remain) above reproach: lyrical ascent as against
the art of sinking.

Or, alternatively, one can invoke the upside-down spirit of Tristram Shandy,
who broke the law of gravity that remains foundational for the ethical under
whatever philosophical description. Recall the grave Levinas in his early essay
"Reality and lts Shadow" (1948)

Magic, recognized everywhere as the devil's part, enjoys an incomprehensible


tolerance in poetry. Revenge is gotten on wickedness by producing its caricature,
which is to take from it its reality without annihilating it; evil powers are conjured

gets the shakes sooner

filling the world with idols which have mouths but do not speak. It is as though
ridicule killed, as though everything really can end in songs. . . . Myth takes the
place of mystery. The world to be built is replaced by the essential completion of
its shadow. This is not the disinterestedness of contemplation but of irresponsibility. The poet exiles himself from the ciry. From this point of view, the value
of the beautiful is relative. There is something wicked and egoist and cowardly in
artistic enjoyment. There are times when one can be ashamed of it, as oFfeasting

Dan gets to Tampa.

during a plague. (Collected PhilosophicalPapers,

by

not be but bemoan,


boomerang
buck(le)
bubbte. Malted meadows & hazelnut
innuendos: l'll bet the soda water

than
"Don'tTampa

with me or I'll lacerate that

On reading this Boccaccio's name comes to mind, followed quickly by Adorno's, among others. The problem, as Plato understood, is that the poet is a

evisceration offyour face so fast

you'll think my caddle prod was

lollipop."

"Stay out of my face or

I'll

deploy my assets against whatever


collateral you've got left after

e)

targetyourabstemious alarm." ("Dark City" IDC, rar])


The word "sincere" derives from a Latin word for "clean." lt means, says the
)ED,"pure, unmixed, free from any foreign element," and in particular free of
"dissimulation" (note that for Levinas the word defines the ethical subject: "to

light and flighty thing. The task of philosophy, as it has been since Aristotle, is
to read poetry seriously, that is, to redeem it (ground it) by way of appropriation or subsumption into categories of the good, the true, and the beautiful
("allegory" is the word for it). Levinas does this in his later work by anchoring
poetry to the grauitos of le Dire,the movement of one-for-the-other that constitutes the ethical subject. lt is worth reciting the passage cited in note 6 above:
"Saying is not a game. . . . The original or pre-original saying, what is put forth
irr tlrc firrcword, weaves an intrigr-re oFresponsibiliry. It sets forth an order

24

25

more grave than being and antecedent to being. By comparison being appears
like a game. Being is play or ddtente, without responsibility, where everything

centralto Celan's poetics. The prose writer, Mandelstam says, always addresses himself (if "himself" is the word) to a familiar audience-his "public": "ladies and gentlemen." The poet, by contrast, must not know whom he is ad-

possible is permitted."
ln hisessay"PaulCelan: From Beingto theOther" (1972) Levinasrefers usto
Celan's famous address "Der Meridian," where poetry is, however obscurely,
said to be vocative in character:''
But the poem speaks. lt remains mindful ofits dates, but it speaks. True, it speaks
only on its own, its very own behalf [in seiner eigenen, allereigensren Soche]. But I
think-and this will hardly surprise you-that the poem has always hoped, for
this very reason, to speak on behalf of the strange-no,l can no longer use this
word here-on behalf of theother, who knows, perhaps of an altogetherother.

And a bit later:


The poem intends another lDasGedichtwillzueinenAndere), needs this other, it
needs an opposite lGegenilberl. It goes toward it, bespeaks it [es spricht sich ihm zu].
For the poem, everything and everybody is a figure [6estolt] of this other toward
which it is heading. (GWlll, rg6-g8; CP, 48-49)'3

It would be surprising if Levinas did not try to see himself (or his forebear,
Martin Btiber) in these lines, whose elusiveness allows for a good deal of interpolation. One of Levinas's purposes in this essay is to pry Celan's remarks
on poetry loose from Heidegger's poetics of world-making where the poet
calls things into the openness being and, in the same stroke, gathers us (humankind) into a conversation.'4 Not an easy undertaking for Levinas, because
Celan's writings on poetry are saturated with Heidegger's vocabulary, as in the
following from his Bremen address:
I tried, during those years and the years after, to write Poems: in order to speak,
to orient myselfi, to flnd out where I was, where I was going, to chart my reality.
It meant movement, you see, something happening, being en route, and at'
tempt to find a direction lEswor . . . Ereignis, Bewegung, Untennegssein, eswar derVersuch,
Richtung zu gewinnen]. (GWl I I, 186; CP, 34)'s

ln "Der Meridian" Celan figures the poem not fiust) as an art object but on the
model of Heidegger's thinker who is on the way (Unterwegs) to an elsewhere
(a-topia) not obviously marked on any map.'6 lt can be said that Celan differs
from Heidegger because he populates this elsewhere with another person
(there are, basically, no people in Heidegger's philosophy: anonymous Dasein, gods and mortals, the faceless crowd, but no one whom anyone would
recognize). Specifically Celan borrows someone from the Russian poet Osip
Mandelstam, who drew a distinction between prose and l)octry that seenls

dressing. "Without dialogue, lyric poetry cannot exist," Mandelstam says, but,
paradoxically, it is a formal condition of poetry that its audience must remain
a stranger-an unknown and anonymous interlocutor. To address someone
one knows is to speak predictably, knowing in advance or from experience
how to make oneselfunderstood; but to address a stranger is not to know how
one will sound or what one will say-for the point of writing, after all, is to
catch oneselfby surprise: "there is only one thing that pushes us into the addressee's embrace: the desire to be astonished by our own words, to be captivated by their originality and unexpectedness."'z To which Celan adds a screw-

turn of his own, figuringthe poetas

kind of Orpheuswhose audience is made

of things as well as people:


The poem becomes-under what conditions-the poem of a person who still
perceives, still turns toward phenomena [dem ErscheinendenZugewandten), addressing and questioning them. The poem becomes conversation-often desperate
conversation lv erzwerfekes Gespriichl.
Only the space of this conversation ldiesesGesprdchsl can establish what is addressed, can gather it into a "you" around the naming and speaking l. But this
"you," come about by dint of being named and addressed, brings its otherness

into the present. Even in the here and now of the poem-and the poem has
only this one, unique, momentary present-even in this immediaq lUnmittel'
what is most its own: its time.
in
this
way
we also dwell on the quesfDinge]
tion of their where-from and where-to, an "open" question "without resolution,"
a question which points toward open, empry, free spaces fins )ffeneundLeereund
barkeitl and nearness, the otherness gives voice to

Whenever we speak

Freieweisenden

with things

Fragel-we have ventured far out.

The poem also searches for this place. (GWlll, t98-99; CP, 5o)

Or, as a Heideggerian would say: GelassenheitzuDingen.


l(rokus, vom gastlichen

Crocus, spotted from

Tisch aus gesehn:

hospitable table:

zeichenfii

small sign-

liges

kleines Exil

sensing exile

einer gemeinsamen

ofa common

Wahrheit,

truth,

tlu brauchst

you need

it'tlt'n ll:rlrn. (GWlll, tzz)

cvcry blade. (SPP, 37a)

26

27

Notice that this is not exactly (or only) an apostrophe to the crocus. Rather it is

"The poetry of the world," Levinas says, "is inseparable from proximity par excellence, or the proximity of the neighbor par excellence" (Collected Philosophicol

an address to a situation held in common, as from one exile to another, with


a piece of advice thrown in: take with you as much as you can, since whatever

you leave behind is a piece of yourself, Perhaps there is more to be said, since
the crocus is the first to bloom in the spring; and then there is the tradition
that extends from Wordsworth's daffodil to Zukofsky's eighty flowers. Where
do Celan's flowers fit in? There are certainly more stones than flowers in Celan's poetry-the two are frequently in conflict, and flowers usually lose-so
one should think carefully about the crocus.'s Another crocus, of sorts, will
turn up in a moment.
i!:il

ln his Celan essay Levinas stops short of claiming any ethical standing for
poetry, which he regards as a parallel universe to be addressed in the form of
rhetorical questions-"Does [Celan] not suggest poetry itself as an unheard-of

modality of the orherwisethanbeing?" (ProperNames,45). Levinas is rather more


declarative in "Language and Proximity" (r967), where he reconfigures his dis-

tinction between

Ie Dir

and le Dire as a distinction between language as kerygma

and language as contact, where the one predicates something of something


(rhis as thot) while the other is an event of sensibility or proximity in which the
visible is no longer an object of consciousness, a phenomenon or sensation,
but is an impingement or obsession: "ln the ethicalrelationship with the real,
that is, in the relationship of proximity which the sensible establishes, the
essential is committed. Life is there. Sight is, to be sure, an openness and a
consciousness, and all sensibiliry, openingas a consciousness, is called vision;
but even in its subordination to cognition sight maintains contact and proximity. The visible caresses the eye, and one hears like one touches" (Collected
Philosophical Papers, u8).
Then, withoutwarning, much less explanation, Levinas gives the name "poetry" to this "ethical relationship with the real":

Papers,

rrg).

No doubt this formulation captures something, namely that poetry is, in


some sense, a ground-level mode of responsibiliry, as when Heidegger speaks

of listening as being antecedent to discursiveness.'s lt is possible that Levinas


crosses over into metaphor when he says that this "relationship of proximity
. . . is the original language, a language without words or propositions, pure
communication" (CollectedPhilosophicalPopers,:rg).lf thiswereso itwould no
longer be clear how poetry could be a practice with a history, that is, something made up concretely (materially) of poems. We'll see very shortly the form
this problem takes in Celan's later poetry. What interests Levinas is the paradox
that the proximity of others and of things does not diminish their distance;
that is, sensibility is not serenity or repose but is, on the contrary, a "restlessness" or anarchy with respect to any order of things (Collected Philosophical papers,rzo-zr). And this is perhaps coherentwith the obscurities that beleaguer
the relationship between "l" and "you" in Celan's poetry, where, as Gadamer
says in his commentary on Atemkristall, "'1,' 'you,' and 'we' are pronounced in
an utterly direct, shadouryr-uncertain and constantly changing way" (Gadomer
on Celan, z7). Not for nothing are pronouns called "shifters." "1" and "you" are
restless, but so are Celan's poems, whose language is arguably no longer a
form of mediation but is anarchic initsWortaufschilttung(Gwll, zg)-its weird
and wild way of combining and compounding words;'o
Kalk-Krokus, im

Chalk-crocus

Hellwerden: dein

the coming of

steckbriefgereiftes

indivisible

Von-dort-und-auch-dort-her,

mellowed in the warrant

unspaltbar,

From-here-and-there-too,

lighr your

Sprengstoffe

high explosives

ldcheln dirzu,

are smiling at you,

The proximity of things is poetry; in themselves the things are revealed before be-

die Delle Dasein

existence the nick

ing approached. In stroking an animal already the hide hardens in the skin. But
over the hands that have touched things, places trampled by beings, the things

hilft einer Flocke

helps a snowflake

aus sich heraus,

come out of itself,

they have held, the images ofthose things, the fragments ofthose things, the con-

in den Fundgruben

texts in which those fragments enter, the inflexions of the voice and the words
that are articulated in them, the ever sensible signs oflanguage, the letters traced,
the vestiges, the relics-over all things, beginnlngwith the human face and skin,
tenderness spreads. Cognition turns into proximity, into the purely sensible. (Col-

staut sich die Moldau. (CWll,

lected Philosophical Popers,

tt}-t g)

at the source-points

4o6)

the Moldau is rising. (LP, r49),,

One can only imagine what Levinas would have made of "steckbriefgereiftes"
or of'the nriddle stanza with its smiling "sprengstoffe" and "die Delle Dasein,"

wlrich (as in Ross's rendition) should perhaps be allowed its Heideggerian res-

28

29

onance ("the dent ofDasein"). Meanwhile the chalk-crocus here does not appear to be a flower, although perhaps a good horticulturalist could identifi it.

the proximity of things, which is "the original language, a language wirhout


wordsorpropositions,purecommunication" (Collectedphitosophicalpopers,ng).

):,

:i .,:: i,i ,. fi?

ti i:i i":

.'

,l ,i

11,

P 1' ll." ;

"i

But of course this is contradicted at once by the brute material fact of


Celan,s
poems23-

lnterestingly, a photograph of a chalk-crocus (that is, of an image of a crocus


inscribed in chalk on a rock) is available online at http://flicker.com/photos/
melisdramati cl 4655486261. lt is hard not to take the photograph as an intentional allusion to Celan's poem, given the almost obsessive place stones have
in his poetry. Turning a flower to stone is the work of a Medusa-head, Celan's
muse and nemesis-recall from "Der Meridian" Celan's elucidation of Georg
Btichner's Lenz:"'Onewould [ike to be a Medusa's head'to . . . seize the natural
as the natural by means of art. . . . This means going beyond what is human,
stepping into a realm which is turned toward the human, but uncanny-the
realm where the monkey, the automaton and with them . . . oh, art, too, seem
to be at home" (GWl I I, rg:; CP, 4z-$).To which he later adds these words:
Poetry is perhaps this: an Atemwende, a turning of our breath. Who knows, perhaps poetry goes its way-the way of art-for the sake of just a turn. And since the
strange, the abyss ond Medusa's head, the abyss and the automaton, all seem to lie
in the same direction-it is perhaps this turn, this Atemwende, which can sort out

Weggebeiztvom

Perhaps after this the poem can be

lch) here, in this manner,

itself.

Sprache

AnhundertMein-

das bunte Gerede des

the gaudy chatter

experienced-my hundred-

ztngige

Cedicht, das Genicht.

manner go other ways, including the ways o[art, time and again? (CWIII, 195-96;
cP,47)

Art freezes the life out of things. The poem wants to breathe life back into
them. No doubt the poem borders the possible/impossible relation of art
and life. That is, the poem is not (ust) an art-object but, following Heidegger
and Mandelstam, a movement both toward utopia and toward an unknown
interlocutor; but, turn and turn about, kunst-loseundkunst-frei, it can also move
along the path of art-as how could it not? This leaves poetry in a neither/nor
condition, or leaves us uncertain as to what it is. Let us say that for Celan it is
antinomic, being both immaterial as a breath and as grave as a stone, as when
breath crystallizes, as it frequently does in his poetry: witness Atemkristall.,,
Celan wants to break with Mallarm6's hermetic thesis that poetry is made of
words, not of things we use words to produce; poetry is immaterial language
(GWlll, zoz', CP,55: "immaterial, but earthly"), rather likc l.evinas's poetry of

ofthe

pseudo-

tongued perjury-

(cwll,3r)

poem, the noem. (B, 95),4

These lines are commonly taken as a valedictory in which celan turns


away

from his earlier, more conventional (lyrical-poetical-figural) verse toward


the characteristically incongruous word-clusters of his later work-,.das wassergewordene Buch" (GWIl, 47), "blauschwarzen Silben,, (CWll, 6r), ..Der
Ke_
hlkopfuerschlu8laut / singt" (GWIt, u4), "Der herzschriftgekri.imelte sichtinsel" (GWll, r74)-that occasionally fragment into sound poetry:,s

Antwort.
Dein Gesang, wasweiBer?
Deine Frage-deine

your question_your answer.


yourchant, whatdoes it know?

Tiefimschnee,

Deepinsnow,

Iefimnee,

I-i-e.

some other thing

. . can in this now art-less, art-free

the beamwind ofyour speech

erlebten-das

the strange from the strange? lt is perhaps here, in this one brief moment, that
Medusa's head shrivels and the automatons run down? Perhaps, along with the I,
estranged and freed Weigeseercn befremdeten
lein Anderesl is also set free?

Eroded by

Strahlenwind deiner

Eepinno,

(cwil,39)

l-i-o.

(B,to7),6

Certainly this is a long way from the iconic "Todesfuge," which is still regarded
signature poem. "Aboutness" fades from the later texts, as in the

as celan's

following from

adensonnen:

Die Fleissigen

Busy

Bodenschdtz, hduslich,
die geheizte Synkope

mineral wealth, domestic,


thermal syncope,

das nicht zu

insoluble

entritselnde

Halljaha

jubilee,

die vollverglasten

vitrailed

Spinnen-Altire im alles-

spider-altars in the allparamount block,

[iberragenden Flachbau,
die Zwischenlaute

the semivowels

(noch immer?),

(still?),

rlic Schattenpalaver,

the shadowparley,

rlic Angste, eisgerecht,

dread, ice-just,

flugklar,

clear to fly,

der barock ummantelte,

the baroque-immantled,

spracheschluckende Duschraum,

tonguesluiced shower-room,

semantisch durchleuchtet,

semantically translumined,

die unbeschriebene Wand

the blankwatt

einer Stehzelle:

ofa standing-cell:

hier

here

leb dich

you must live through-

querdurch, ohne Uhr. (GWll, r5t)

out, withouttime. (FB, ro5)

The poem forms a single period without becoming anything resembling a


sentence, until perhaps the last (Poe-like) lines. Paratactic phrasing replaces
the discursiveness of speech. And the baroque-covered "spracheschluckende
Duschraum"-literally, "the language-swallowing shower-room"-is char-

acteristic of the heterogeneous ways in which, in the later poetry, words and
things are constellated along the same material plane of existence:
They eat:

Sie essen:

die

Tollhiiusler-Triiffel, ein Sttick

the bedlamite's-truffle, a piece

unvergrabner Poesie

unburied poetry,

fand Zunge und Zahn. (GWll,59)

found tongue and tooth. (B,r47)

Bei den zusammengetretenen

At the assembled

Zeichen, im

signs, in the

worthdutigen 0lzelt (GWll, 69)

wordmembraned oiltent (8, r7o)

die Sprachtiirme

rings

in der totzuschweigenden
Zone (GWll,

the language-towers everywhere

Zeichen-

9r)

in the to-be-silenced-to-death signzone (B, zt9)

schlaksig

gangly,

kommt eine riber-

a more

mtindige Silbe geschritten (CWII, r4z)

major syllable comes walking (TC, 95)

than

Kleide die Worthohlen aus

Line the wordcaves

mit Pantherhauten,

with panther skins,

erweitere sie, fellhin und fellher,

widen them, hide-to and hide-fro,

sinnhin und sinnher (GWll, r98)

sense-hither and sense-thither (TC, zo3)

lmagine, ifyou can, "unburied poetry": cadaverousverse-"Poetry, ladies and


gentlemen: an eternalization of nothing but mortality, and in vain" (GWlll,
zoo; CP,5z). The "wordmembraned oiltent" meanwhile belongs to the family

of "wordcaves" lined with "panther skins." Plus an ambulatory syllable looking for all the world like Franz Kafka. lt would be interesting to read Celan's
poetry just to follow the often tragicomic course of his "winterhard-cold / syllables" (GWl, I, z9o: "winterhart-kalten / Silben"):

dir
unters Aug. Mit der Lippe auF
Die Abende graben sich

The evenings inter themselves

underyour eye. With lip-

gesammelteSilben-sch<ines, uploadedsyllables-lovely,
lautloses

Rund-

noiseless

circle-

helfen dem Kriechstern

help the creepstar

in ihre Mitte. (GWI, 235)

into their midst. (my translation)

One could say that as Celan's poetry thickens, the question ofpoetry and the
ethical fades into the distance. But perhaps this would be to take a narrowview
because, after all, in its break with principles and rules the ethical is about the

limits of my ability or power

as a subject

(the limits of possibility), which is

exactly what Celan's poetry brings me up against. ln his later writings lacques
Derrida, drawing on the work of Maurice Blanchot as well as that of Emmanuel
Levinas, came to think of the ethical as an event of the impossible. An event
of the impossible is something like an epiphanic break-what complexitytheorists call a catastrophe-an absolutely singular disruption in the course

or order of things, as when I am called upon for forgiveness. Derrida's idea is,
not surprisingly, paradoxical: "lf I forgive only what's forgivable, I've forgiven

nothing. . . . lf I forgive only what is venial, only what is excusable or pardonable, the slight misdeed, the measured and measurable, the determined and
Iimited wrongdoing, in that case, l'm not forgiving anything. . . . I can only
forgive, if I do forgive, when there is something unforgivable, when it isn't
possible to forgive." (As if forgiveness were governed, like the gift, by the principle of loss.) The ethical event, in other words, is an advent of the impossible, where the impossible, Derrida says, "is not simply negative. " The ethical
means that "the impossible must be done. The event, if there is one, consists
in doing the impossible."'z
Besides forgiveness Derrida offers the example of invention-that is, the
invention of a work of art: "lnvention is an event; the words themselves indicate as much. It is a matter of finding, of bringing out, of makingwhat is not
yct here come to be. lnventing, if it is possible, is not inventing. . . . If I can
irrvcrrt what I invent, if I have the ability to invent what I invent, that means

32
that the invention follows a potentiality, an ability that is in me, and thus it
brings nothing new. It does not constitute an event. I have the ability to make
this happen and consequently the event, what happens at that point, disrupts
nothing; it's not an absolute surprise" ("A Certain Impossible Possible Saying," 43). Likewise if I merely say what can be said, nothing happens (recall
Mandelstam on writing to surprise onesell or Adorno on making "things of
which we do not knowwhat they are": the event of modernism). ln this respect
the ethics of invention would consist in doing what cannot be done, as when
Maurice Blanchot, in one of his earliest theoretical texts, writes:
writer finds himself in the increasingly ludicrous condition of having nothing
to write, of having no means with which to write it, and of being constrained by
the utter necessiry of always writing it. Having nothing to express must be taken
in the most literal way. Whatever he would like to say, it is nothing. The world,
things, knowledge are to him only landmarks across the void. And he himself is
already reduced to nothing. Nothingness is his material. He rejects any forms in
which it offers himself to him, since they are something. He wants to seize it not in
an allusion but in its own actual truth. He is looking for a "No" that is not "No" to

The

this, "No" to that, "No" to everything, but "No" pure and simple. . . . [The] "l have
nothing to say" ofthe writer, like that ofthe accused, encloses the whole secret of
his solitary condition.'8
A

text that Samuel Beckett happily plagiarized:


B.

The only thing disturbed by the revolutionaries Matisse and Tal Coat is a cer-

tain order on the plane ofthe feasible.


D. What

other plane can there be for the maker?

of an art turning from it in disgust, weary of its


puny exploits, wearing of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little
better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road.
B. Logicalty, none. Yet I speak

D. And

preferring what?

expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express,
togetherwith the obligation to express.'s
B. The

"Language," Blanchotwrites, "is possible only because it strives for the impossible" (WF, zz). The true poem is preciselywhatcannot bewritten. To which he
adds, in an essay on Rend Char (r9a6): "The search for totality, in all its forms,
is the poetic

claim par excellence,

claim in which the impossibility of being


accomplished is included as its condition, so that if it ever happens to be accomplished, it is only as something not possible, because the poem claims
a

to include its impossibility and its non-realization in its very existence"

(WF,

ro4). or again, in an essay on poetry as a refusal ofthe powers ofexpression


("The Great Refusal" [rgsg]): "Poetry is not there in order to say impossibility;

it simply answers to it, saying in responding. Such is the secret lot, the secret
decision of every essentiaI speech in us: naming the possible, responding to
the impossible" (lC, 48). No doubt this responsibility is what Levinas would
call "an unheard-of modality of the otherwisethonbeing."
It would not be difficult to locate Celan in this antinomic context-in his
"Meridian" address he says quite explicitly, if a bit gnomically, that the poem
of which he is speaking "certainly does not, cannot exist" (GWll, r99; CP, 5r).
Poetry is, in Blanchot's word, ddseuvrement: worklessness:
A new kind ofarrangement not entailing harmony, concordance, or reconcilia-

tion, but that accepts disjunction or divergence as the infinite center from out of
which, through speech, relation is to be created: an arrangement that does not
compose but juxtaposes, that is to say, leaves each of the terms that come into
relation ourside one another, respecting and preserving this exterioriry and this distance as the principle-always already undercut-of all signification. luxtaposition and interruption here assume an extraordinary force ofjustice.:o
lmagine poetry as a defeat ofpoiesis: the fragmentary imperative. As I once tried
to show, there is in this embrace of contradiction, interruption, and paratax
a deep kinship between Blanchot and Celan, who wrote in German, to be

sure-

SprichDoch scheide das Nein nichtvom


(GWI,

r35)

Speak-

la.

But keepyes and no unsplit.


(PPC,9e)

whose poetry and poetics are deeply informed by the French intellecBlanchot was such a powerful presence.a' Here are the

-but
tual culture in which

last lines of "Wer herrscht?" ("Who Rules?"):


Die schwarzdiaphane

The black-diaphanous

Cauklerg<isch

jugglerjack

In unterer

in lower

Kulmination.

culmination.

Der

erkimpfte Umlaut im Unwort:

The hardwon umlaut in the unword:

dein Abglanz: der Grabschild

your reflection: the tombshield

eines der Denkschatten

of one of the wordshadows

hier. (GWII, rr6)

here. (TC,39)

34
"The hardwon umlaut in the unword": the line captures as concisely as possible the event of Celan's poetry. I'm reminded, in conclusion, of one of Michael
Palmer's Celan-like poems:
Unutterable
pages

ofcounterlight
in the fluid window
a

dog sings songs

asking nothing
we cannot speak?'

vorcEs oF
CONSTRUGTION

on susan hourets poetry end poetics


(n citational
ghost stony)
My purpose here is to give a fairly comprehensive account of Susan Howe's
work, particularly from the standpoint of her later writings, principally The
Midnight (zoo3) but also with reference to the more recent Souls of the Labadie
Tract (zoo7). My general thesis is that Howe's work is a proiect of self-formation through the appropriation of the writing (and therefore the subjectivity) of others. This self-formation is not just metaphorical but is meant
to be taken literally, because for Howe the texts that she reads and cites are
pneumatic-inhabited by the ghosts of their authors. I take this to be a deeply
Yeatsian dimension of her work, which becomes increasingly pronounced as

her writing develops. ln My Emily Dickinson (rS8S), for example, Howe writes:
"Myvoice formed in my life belongs to no one else" (r3)-to all appearances a
straightforward statement, but "voice" and "life" turn out to be terms of considerable complexity, as we are reminded by one of Howe's statements (in her
"Personal Narrative," which introduces Souls of the LabadieTract) in which she
recalls her reading of George Sheldon's A History of DeerfieldMassochuserrs (1895),
one oI the source texts for her "Articulation of Sound Forms in Time" (1987),
:rnrl t he tcxt in which she encounters (and embraces) one of her alter egos, the

ll

!t

37

36
Puritan minister (and outcast) Hope Atherton: "l vividly remember the sense
of energy and change that came over me one midwinter morning when, as the
book lay open in sunshine on my work table, I discovered in Hope Atherton's
wandering story the authoriry of a prior life for my own writingvoice" (SLT, t3).
Note where "authority" is located here: "voice" and "life" are heteronomous
rather than univocal or self-identical. We shall have to imagine the poet as a
fluid or, to turn the metaphor, a porous subject, not the sealed-off punctual ego

of modernity-Howe is not interested in self-possession but in selFalterity (if


such a term can be permitted): "for something to work," Howe said in an interview with lon Thompson, "l need to be another self' (SLT, 7).'
Let me try to locate Howe's statement about life and voice, and others like it,

within the conceptual frame of her poetics considered as a whole, and which
l've taken the liberty of distilling into five propositions, each one of which
seems in some way paradoxical or even antinomic when taken in relation to
some of the others.
t.The poem

is a physical

object, aspltial qndvisualartrfact, inwhichwords ond letters zre

imagestobeplacedlikelinesand colorsonthewhitespace oftheprinted (orperhapshandwrit'


ten) page. As Howe said in her intewiew with Lynn Keller (speaking of her early
career as a painter): "l moved into writingphysicolly because this was concerned
with gesture, the mark of the hand and the pen or pencil, the connection be-

tween eye and hand. . . . Though my work has changed, l've never really lost
the sense that words, even single letters, are images. The look of the word is
part of its meaning-the meaning that escapes dictionary definition, or rather
doesn't escape but is bound up with it."'What is it to write physically-or, for
that matter, to read that way?3 (ln the Talisman interview with Edward Foster,
Howe asked: "How often do critics consider poetry a physical act? Do critics
look at the print on the page, at the shapes of words, at the surface-the space
of the paper itselP Very rarely" [BM, rsz].) Howe's poetry forces you to look at
words, letters, shapes, and white space, there being (at first glance) little else
to do. I must confess to looking with a blank stare at "the shapes of words,"
or the white space of the page. Here is the first poem from HingePicture Qg74),

ing the mute vocables

of God that
a

rained

demon daringdown in h

ieroglyph and stuttering


(FS,::)

shall see, this is, in many respects, a signature poem, off-square, like
one ofAgnes Martin's paintings from Howe's painterly period. (..My formats,,,
Martin said, "are square, but the grids are never absolutely square; they are
rectangles, a bit off the square, making a sort of contradiction, a dissonance,
though I didn't set out to do it that way. when I cover the square surface with
rectangles, it lightens the weight of the square, destroys its power.,,)4 Howe,s
poem is a fragment of a narrative shaped geometrically into the look of a lyric
As we

with line breaks that emphasize the physicality or, as someone might now
prefer, the graphicity of syllables and letters.s "l was scared to begin writing
sentences," Howe says in an interyiew with Lynn Keller, as if hesitating to say
things instead of makingthem.6 In the background we glimpse the artworld of

minimalism and concrete poetry that Howe writes about in "The End of Art,"
where she cites the visual poet Eugene Gomringer's poetic theory: .,,Restriction in the very best sense-concentration and simplification-is the very essence of poetry. ln the constellation [of words] something is brought into the
is a reality in itself and not a poem about something or other.,,,z To

world. lt

restrict is to confine within limits; in this case the limits are those of being (at
least or no more than) a mere thing. But Howe's poems rarely discard their
"aboutness" entirely. ln her "Preface" to Fromestructures and elsewhere, Howe

(born in t937) identifies herself as a war poet: "my early poems project aggression" (F5, z9), and accordingly this first poem inHingepicturegives us shards of
the first war-the casting out of angels from heaven. Figure Lucifer as the first
antinomian. But perhaps the key word in the poem is "stuttering,, in virtue of
the discreet but crucial place that hesitation comes to have in Howe's poetics,
as when she writes of Emily Dickinson.

demon darkened intelle

she built a new poetic form from her fractured sense of being eternally on intellectual borders, where confident masculine voices buzzed an alluring and inaccessible discourse, backward through history into aboriginal anagos/. pulling
pieces of geometry, geologr, alchemy, philosophy, politics, biography, biology,
mythology, and philolog from alien territory, a "sheltered,,woman audaciously
invented a newgrammargrounded in humilityand hesitation. HESITATE from the
Latin meaning to stick. stammer. To hold back in doubt, have difficulty speaking.

ct mirror

(MED, zr)

Howe's first collection of poetry:

invisible angel confined


to a point simpler than

a soul a lunar sphere

clear

receiv

Except that for Howe this difficulty is not so much a speech defect as an alternative way of puttingwords and things together, as in the poem just now cited,

or in one of Emily Dickinson's poems, with its paratactic dashes and appendixes of alternative words. "Dashes," says Howe, "drew liberty of interruption
inside the structure of each poem" (MED, z3). Howe's dashes (or [iberties) are
invisible, as are punctuation marks, as in this recent poem from "u8 Westerly
Terrace" (Wallace Stevens's address in Hartford, Connecticut), which toys with
Stevens's " carefor particulars," as Louis Zukofsky called it.8
Poets have imagined you

whoever you are

implicit

because on this paper there is not enough white space around its lines. We
need to invoke the spirit ofAd Reinhardt and his black paintings:
A square (neutral, shapeless) canvas, 5 feet wide 5 feet high, as wide as a man's
outstretched ars (not large, not small, sizeless), trisected (no composition), one

horizontal form negating, one vertical form (formless, no top, no bottom, directionless) three (more or less) dark (lightless) noncontrasting (colorless) colors,
brushwork brushed out to remove brushwork, a mat flat, free hand painted surface . . . which does not reflect surroundings-a pure, abstract, non-objective,
timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting-an object
that is self-conscious (no unconsciousness) ideal, transcendent, aware ofno thing
butArt absolutely (no Anti-Art). (cited by Susan Howe, "The End ofArt," z)s

melody familiar metaphor

Imagine aesthetics as a kind of negative theology in which nothing positive


can be predicated of the work of art. But of course that was never Ad Rein-

bawdy tapestries archaic

pillage love patience the


scales the dogs the boots (SLT, 8r)

Who are you ("whoever you are")? lnterestingly, in many of the poems in
"rr8 WesterlyTerrace" an anonymous speaker addresses an unidentifiable second-person singular. Maybeyou are the perfect poem-perfect in the way geometricaI objects are perfect, but unlike geometricaI objects poems are made
of particulars: from "bawdy tapestries" and looted antiquities to "the dogs rhe

boots." Or maybeyou're the ideal poet, a man with a blue guitarora comedian
the letter "c." But perhaps the main character of "u8 Westerly Terrace" is
just the house Stevens lived in, and, who knows, he may be there still, since in
Howe's world you can't have a house (or a poem) without a ghost in it:
as

hardt's position. ln an interviewwith f eanne Siegel he said: "l've been called a


godless mystic, which is not true."ro But eliminative procedures are meant to
deprive us (and not just us) ofthings to say:
clutching
myCrumbl
ejumble (FS,5r)

z. The

physicaliry of

wriring

suggests

that (in keeping with a number of American or,

for that mqtter, modernist poetic traditions) poetry for Howe is on objective construction,
not a subjective expression. The intentionality of the poem is more formal than

semantic-but

also more aleatory and serial than architectonic: "l never start
sub ject of a poem. I sit quietly at my desk and let vari-

I want my own house I'm

with an intention for the

you and you're the author


You're not all right you're

ous things-memories, fragments, bits, pieces, scraps,

all otherwise it appears as


if you don't care who you

are-if you
(sr,78)

count the host

Pronouns are not called "shifters" for nothing. Think of this as a poem
about the difficulty of inhabiting shifters (or any place at all). But to reod the
poem in this (or in any other) way is to obscure its physicaliry (obscure its obscurity(). So for now contrast the austerity of Howe's lyric with the luxury of
so much of Stevens's poetry ("We drank Meursault, ate lobstcr Bombay with
mango / Chutney"). Of course, my citation of Howc's pot'rn rrrisrcprcscnts it

sounds-let them all

work into something. This has to do with changing order and abolishing categories" (BM, r6a). Abolishing categories is the work of anarchism. Of Emily
Dickinson Howe says in the Tolismon interview that "she abolishes categories"
(BM, r57), which is to say that she "disturbs the order of a world where comrnerce is realiry and authoritative editions freeze poems into artifacts" (BM,
r9). Likewise of Dickinson's practice of "variation and fragmentation," Howe
writes: "This space is the poem's space. Letters are sounds we see. Sounds leap
to the eye. Word lists, crosses, blanks, and ruptured stanzas are points ofcontact and displacement. Line breaks and visual contrapuntal stresses represent
.rrr athenratic compositionaI intention" (BM, r39). An "athematic composit i<rna I irrtcn tion " describes Howe's A Bibliography of the King's Book: Eikon Basilike,

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43

42

oblivious window of Quiet


closing

words tossed, and words touching, crowding each other, letters mixing and
falling away from each other, commands and dreams, verticals and circles. lf
it was impossible to print, that didn't matter. Because it's about impossibility

egeiptes aegistes aegiptes egeps Egipp


egypt here there

anyway" (BM, t75).


Howe writes in the Talisman interview: "l felt when I finished [Eikon] that it
was so unclear, so random, that I was crossing into visual art and that I had
unleashed a picture of violence that I needed to explain to myself" (BM, t65).
She seems to have found one explanation in chaos theory, with its ideas of
randomness, self-interruption, turbulence, and singularities. "ln algebra,"

singularity is the point where plus becomes minus' On a line,


ifyou start at x point, there is +1, +2, etc. But at the other side ofthe point is
-1, -2, etc. The singutarity . . . is the point where there is sudden change into
something completely else. lt's a chaotic point. lt's the point chaos enters cosmos, the instant articulation. Then there is a leap into something else" (BM,
r73)." And so a page ofa Howe poem is aPtto lookvery strange, as in these offcited lines from "Articulation of Sound Forms inTime":

she explains, "a

rest chondriacal IunacY


velc cello viable

toil

quench conch uncannunc

drumm amonoosuck ythian

Scotus (that is darkness)

forged history) slayius slamius stanius Monarch


greengrail mist-grey who
soundless parable possible Quiet to flame
hay (ET, 87)

Closing the "window of Quiet" means letting sound in (in the form of cacophony). Perhaps we can read the third and fourth lines as a process oftuning that finally produces the familiar word (or sound of) "erypt." Or perhaps

the closing window is the dying of day that produces the guttural rhythms
of frogs. The middle name of medieval theologian John Duns Scotus (born
in Duns, England) produced a famous pun (dunce), which echoes the dusky
color of dun. Scotus championed the doctrine of the lmmaculate Conception,
and so could be the subject ofthe ensuing predicate. Further tuning produces
sounds (but not words) of Latin: "slayius slamius stanius." Philip lV was king
of France when Scotus lectured at Paris. Philip enraged Pope Boniface Vl I I by
taxing church property to fund his wars. The pope excommunicated the king,

scow aback din

who then had the pope put in prison, where he died. Scotus, having sided with
the pope, was sent backto England. Notice thatthe "gnashingpattern ofallit-

flicker skaeg ne

eration"

barge quagg peat

repose or rhyming closure of "hay."

(ET

, tzz) concludes with

tuning: "greengrail mist-grey" is given the

sieveeataeemb

stint chisel sect

(S,

to)

in space rather than in


in Howe's work,
another
into
one
fold
dimensions
time/space
time-but
(BM, r4t). ls
"polyphonic
complexity"
visual
which is the point of her love of
"quench conch uncannunc / drumm amonoosuck ythian" a sonic or a visual
line? (of course it's physical in either case.) Recall the assertion: "The look of
the word is part of its meaning" ("lnterview" 6): the question is, what part? ln
My Emity Dickinson Howe converts this proposition from sight to sound; "Sound
was always part of perfect meaning" (SS)' No one has ever developed a satisfactory answer to the question of how sounds ought to be written, much less
of how writing is to be sounded.'' The section of Howe's "Defenestration o[
Prague" entitled "Tuning the Sky" is worth consulting in this context. lt apRead this page as an "articulation of sound forms"

pears, perhaps appropriately, to be made oFnoise:

3.

ln other words , poetry is also an acoustical art: words are sounds os well as images .

But

sounds ofwhat, exactly?And do we knowwhatsounds are? Here is Emmanuel


Levinas on the primacy of seeingSeeing means being in a self-sufficient world that is completely here. . . . Vision
is a

This

link to being in such


is

way that being once seen precisely appears as

world.

where the primacy ofvision lies in relation to the other senses. And the uni-

versality ofart also rests on that primacy ofvision. lt produces beauty in nature,
calms and soothes it. The arts, even those based on sound, produce silence.

it

Seeing is compositional: it means distance, perspective, arrangement, and


r(r pose. Levinas seems to think of it as an essentially aesthetic activity (think

ofaesthetic distance). Butsound for Levinas is antithetical or, better, anarchic

with rcspect to vision:

as hearing-includes within itself the splitting apart of the always completed world of vision and art. Sound as a whole rings
out, detonates, and is scandalous. Whereas, in the realm ofvision, forms embrace
and soothe their contents, sound is like the sensory world overflowing itself,

Sound-and consciousness conceived

forms being unable to hold their contents-the world ripping asunder-that by


which this world here extends a dimension which cannot be converted into vision.'3

Sound is discord, disturbance, disruption, dissonance, disarray, disintegration, distress, disaster, but not distance. Eyes are easier to close than ears. What
is the color of tinnitus? The first section of "The Defenestration of Prague" is
tuned into this aggressive character ofsound (againstwhich no doubt we construct music to protect us, but Howe prefers the conflict of word-sounds):
sound

sounde)

ofsoun

amend unto

bowrougholder borrougolder borsolder bar

fa[[ing out sentences

(hollowwhere I can shelter)


falling out over
and gone
Dark ballad and dark crossing

old woman prowling


Ceniat telling her story
ideal city of immaculate beauty

invincible children
threshing felicity

Forwearelanguage Lost
in language (ET, 99)
"Speeches at the Barriers" even contains a lyrical "t," although

it is one who
Lost in language," which is perhaps why the poem
is not made of speeches but of fragmentary allusions to the world of medieval romance, courtly love, and courtly forms of poetry-ballads, pastorals,
says "we are language

soldier burrow holder Him


bring into Awe
stranglerstragglers no
nightstealer
(by ways and

offorces

blind fords)
Bog

masques-where the "Crumbling compulsion of syllables,, (ET, ro6) still


sounds the keynote ofthe whole:
Skeletal kin

some little fortilage

woden castle
ragtaile ragtayle two letters worn off
were a sea-poole

corner (ET,93)

tilt
italiclunaE

long lines of Iittle difference


Seventy memories
masks

Howe seems to have registered Levinas's insight that sound (like other people)
produces the experience ofbeing turned inside-out and exposed to a something-or-other that cannot be grasped conceptually but instead sets a limit to

singing and piping

our powers of cognition, coherence, composition, containment, and control.


Reading Howe's poetryalways involves the experience of this limit, even when
her anarchic sound-forms ("bowrougholder borrougolder borsolder bar")

beginning and begetting

evolve into linear patterns, as they do in the second section of"Defenestration," called "speeches at the Barriers," whose justified left margins seem to
restore the conventions of
Say

that a ballad

wrapped in a ballad
a play

offorce and play

poetry-or anyhow of literary history:

to be

(halfwords)
strangers nodding to one another

stumbling and scrambling


(uncertain theme)
random form (ET, rr3)

lmagine this as a poem aboutwhat poetry is made o[, startingwith antinomic


sound-forms like "skeletal kin." What is interesting, however, is that for Howe
sound is also pneumatic or even demonic because a sound made of phonemes
is alrcady avoicinq.ln her interviewwith Keller Howe saysthat

47
in spite of all my talk about the way the page looks, and particularly in regard to
these pages constructed as ifthey were a kind ofdrawing, strangely the strongest

element I feel when I am writing something is acoustic. For example the pages in
Nonconformist M emorial and Eikon Basilike fwith their constellations of words and intersecting, overprinted lines] are in my head as theater. I hear them in one particular way. I think that comes from my childhood and very directly from my mother
fthe lrish actress Mary Manning]. Even now, when she is eighty-nine years old, the
theater is her greatest passion. She was always fascinated by voice, by accents, and
she very early passed on to me that feeling for the beauty ofthe spoken voice. ("ln-

tewiew," r3)
But voices are

not just voices. ln

The Midnrghr

Howe recalls her early experience

of Yeats's poetry:
Maybe one reason I am so obsessed

with spirits who inhabit these books is be-

cause my mother brought me up on Yeats as if he were Mother Goose. Even before


I could read,

"Down by the Sally Gardens" was a lullaby, and a framed broadside

"He wishes for the cloths of heaven" printed at the Cuala Press hung over my bed.

I hope her homesickness, leaving Dublin for Boston in 1935, then moving on to
Buffalo where we lived between r938 and r94r, then back to Cambridge, Massachusetts, was partially assuaged by the Yeats brothers. She hung lack's illustrations
and prints on the walls of any house or apartment we moved to as if they were
windows. Broadsides were an escape route. Points of departure. They marked
another sequestered "self'where she would go home to her thought. She clung

to William's words by speaking them aloud. So there were always three dimensions, visua[, textual, auditory. Waves ofsound connected us by associationaI syllabic magic to an original imaginary place existing somewhere across the ocean
between the emphasis of sound and the emphasis of sense. I loved listening to her
voice. I felt my own vocabulary as something hopelessly mixed and at the same

time hardened into gtass. (M,

75)

Sound is transport but only because or when our relation to it is a form of


obsession. To be obsessed is, etymologically, to be besieged and possibly

multiplicity. The proper name is the subject of a pure infinitive comprehended


in a field ofintensity"' (5, qz). So that's how poetry begins: a subject is
pervaded by multiplicities. ln the Tolisman interview Howe says, in response to
a reference to lack Spicer's idea that the poet is in some sense "the transmitter of the poem" that arrives from elsewhere (BM, r55): "Well, I do believe that
Spicer radio-dictation thing, as I read it in Robin Blaser's essay on Spicer-that
poetry comes from East Mars. But the outside is also a space-time phenomenon. I think the outside, or East Mars, consists of other people's struggles and
theirvoices. Sounds and spirits (ghosts ifyou like) leave traces in a geography"
as such

(BM, r56)-in New England, say, or (perhaps much the same thing) in a library.
The porous subject: "You are of me & I of you, I cannot tell / Where you leave

off and I begin" (S, S8). ln her introduction to The Europe ofTrusrs Howe writes
a much-cited line: "l wish I could tenderly lift from the dark side of history,
voices that are anonymous, slighted, inarticulate" (ET, ra). Compare the following from the Keller interview:
No, no. I don't hearvoices (though I'm scared I might). you don't hearvoices, but
yes, you're hearing something. You're hearingsomethingyou see. And there's the
mystery of the eye-hand connection: when it's your work, it's your hand writing.
Your hand is receiving orders from somewhere. yes, it could be your brain, your
superego giving orders; on the other hand, they ore orders. I guess it must seem
strange that I say poetry is free when I also say I'm getting orders. It can be very

frightening. ("Interview,"

33)

Likewise, in "Personal Narrative" in Souls of the Labadie Tract, she writes: "l
wished to speak for libraries as places of freedom and wildness. Often walking alone in the stacks, surrounded by raw material paper afterlife, my spirits
were shaken by the great ingathering oftitles and languages. This may suggest
vampirism because while I like to think I write for the dead, I also take my life
as a poet from their lips, their vocalisms, their breath" (SLT, r6):
"Here we

are"-You can't

overtaken: the prose poem of"Thorow," concerning her experience of Lake


George, New York, contains this strange fragment: "lnterior assembling of

hear us without having to be

forces underneath the earth's eye. Yes, she, the Strange, excluded from formal-

know-you knowyou can't

ism. I heard poems inhabited byvoices": to which Howe adds a citation from A
Thousqnd Ploteaus, by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: "'The proper name (nom

Verbal echoes so many ghost

propre) does not designate an individual:

it

is on the contrary when the indi-

vidual opens up to the multiplicities pervading him or her, at the outcome of


the most severe operation of depersonalization, that he or she acquires her

true proper name. The proper name is the instantaneous apprehension o[

us

knowingeverythingwe

poets I think ofyou


and

as

wild

fugitive-"Stop awhile"

(SLT, 58)

Poetry as connatural knowledge: "You can't / hear us without having to be


/
Pcrhaps it would be simpler to say that there is a powerfulyeatsian dimen-

trs. "

49
sion to Howe's poetics, which is to say that for her Poetry is a form of ghostwriting; or, to give the screw another turn, poetry is a certain way of inhabiting
and resonating with a world in which even mere things-leftover, discarded,
or forgotten things like things in a desk drawer-are haunted, which would be
a

way of reading this fragment from

The M

idnight: "Wagons, rusty buckets, tires,

tables shovels, broken bottles, broken glass, cash boxes, plastic cups, old
clothes, torn magazines, newspapers, memos, business records. When the
other half of the dialogue of mind with itself is nothing but a picture, the status of a spectral self resurfaces" (M, r:S).Whose self is this? ("You are of me & I
ofyou, I cannot tell / Where you leave off and I begin" [S, 58].) The poet's self is,
in Deleuze and Cuattari's language, a "multiplicity"-but at the same time one
cannot help thinking of Yeats's "Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can."r4

4.Thepoemisanassemblageoffoundtexts(in

otherwords,citational). Susan Howe

famously describes herself as, from an early age, a "library cormorant" in need
of "out-of-the-way books" (BM, r8), but whose first experience of a library is
that of forbidden territory (she was not allowed to follow her father into the
stacks of Harvard's Widener Library)-hence her association of the library and

the (early American) wilderness: "Thoreau said, in an essay called 'Walking,'


that in literature it is only the wild that attracts us. What is forbidden is wild.
The stacks of Widener Library and of all the great libraries in the world are still
wild to me" (BM, r8). Forests are inhabited by spirits-and so are libraries. In
her "Personal Narrative" in Soulsofthe LabadieTract, Howe recalls her experience
of the Sterling Library at Yale where her husband, David von Schlegell, was a

professor of art, which meant that she now had library privileges:
ln Sterling's sleeping wilderness I felt the telepathic solicitation of innumerable
phantoms. The future seemed to lie in the forest of letters, theories, and forgotten
actualities. I had a sense of the parallel between our always fragmentary knowledge and the continual progress toward perfect understanding that never withers
away. I felt a harmony beyond the confinement of our being merely dross or tin;
something chemical almost mystical that, thank to architectural artifice, these
grey and tan steel shelves in their neo-Gothic tower commemorate in semidarkness, according to Library ofCongress classification. (SLT, t4)

Years ago Northrop Frye wrote: "Poems can only be made out of other poems, novels out of other novels": all of literary history is a recomposition of

received texts.rs Likewise Howe and her Emily Dickinson: "Forcing, abbreviating, pushing, padding, subtracting, riddling, interrogating, re-writing, she
[Dickinson] pulled text from text" (MED, zg)-an activity that produces or re-

flects something more complex than the structuralist's "intertextualiU." Susan Howe's philosophy of composition-very much a feature of the r96os-is

that of quotation and collage, to which she adds, however, a dimension of


intersubjectiviry, meaning that in writing she is always herself and others ("innumerable phantoms"), which is to say that she herself, as a writing subject,
is formed out of her library encounters with other subjects, each of which is,
moreover, historically, geographically, and (there being no better term) ideologically situated: "My writing has been haunted and inspired by a series of
texts, woven in shrouds and cordages of classic American nineteenth-century
works; they are the buried ones, they body them forth"-to which she adds:
"Dickinson, Melville, Thoreau, and Hawthorne guided me back to what I once
thought was the distant seventeenth century. Now I know that the arena in
Scripture battles raged among New Englanders fchiefly the antinomian controversy surrounding Anne Hutchinson] is part of our current American system and events, history and structure" (BM, qS, 47).So the library is a kind of
time machine-except that the present does not 0ust) return to the past; rather the past is always with us, perhaps as much in the form of traumatic memory (the stereotype ofthe New England writer) as that ofthe legendary eternal
return. "The pastis presentwhen lwrite," Howe says in her interviewwithTom
Beckett, which means thatwhen Susan Howe speaks in her own voice, it is not
only she herself who is speaking, because her writing is also a kind of ingathering and appropriation-and this is true both in her poetry and in her prose
writings like My Emily Dickinson (but the distinction berween poetry and prose
in Howe's writings is, like her relation to others and their texts, an open border).'6 The principles of this form ofwriting are perhaps most fully articulated
in "Submarginalia," the continuation of Howe's introduction to TheBirth-mark,
in which she elucidates both the natural history of the cormorant as a deep-sea
feeder and the cultural history of the library-cormorant, starting with Samuel
Taylor Coleridge, whose writings feed off of his (obsessive-compulsive) reading, which is to saytheyare citational in the form of marginal embellishments
(a species of open form) as well as in the form of quotation. The question naturally arises as to how one is to read what amounts to the readings of others.
("1 thought one way to write about a loved author," Howe says, "would be to
lollow what trails he follows through words of others: what if these penciled
sirrgle double and triple scorings arrows short phrases angry outbursts crosses
cryptic ciphers sudden enthusiasms mysterious erasures have come to find
you too, here again, now" [NM, 9z].) This is perhaps one of the chief critical
r;rrcstions raised by Susan Howe's writings: it is a question that determines the
l.rnr as wc'll as the content oF her work. A preliminary answer is that what we

50

51

left mostly unread-for example, Cotton Mather's Magnalia


Christi Americqno, a prototype of Howe's writings since it is a montage made of
"blizzards of anecdotes, anagrams, prefatory poems, dedications, epigrams,
memories, lists of ministers and magistrates, puns, paradoxes, 'antiquities,'
remarks, laments, furious opinions, recollections, exaggerations, fabrications, 'Examples,'wonders, spontaneous otherversions" (BM, 3o). Howe cites
an exasperated editor of Magnolio, who complains that Mather "'was primarily
a smatterer, constantly skimming through whole volumes in search of passages containing ideas which he thought he could develop in his own way
or which might sewe him as appropriate quotations for use in his own writing"' (BM, 3o). Cormorant. (l once tried to show that this method of citational
composition has its roots in ancient rhetoric, with its concept of invention as
"finding things to say" in what has already been said, or written, with a view
toward its application to the discursive situation in which one finds oneself.
An authoritative text is a glossed text; the concept oforiginality, of"creative"
writing, is one of the constructions of modernity.)

will read

has been

5. The material of poetry is historical-or, more occurately, archival and, more strictly
relation to the past is that of an antiquarian (or

still, anecdotal. In fact, Howe's

"antiquary') rather than that of a historian. This is not to gainsay the many excellent things that have been written about Howe's historical imagination and
her "anarcho-scholasticism."'7 ln The Amateur and the Professionol: Antiquarians,
Historians, andArcheologissinVictorianEngland,fi3S-t886, Philippa Levine studies
the professionalization of both history-writing and archaeology during the
middle of the nineteenth century-a process that entailed the scapegoating of
antiquarians as mere amateurs, that is, genteel but provincial hunter-gatherers without any conceptual framework or methodology, meaning chiefly that
they did not have universiry degrees (:S-:S). Historians study documents in
order to reconstruct (objectifr) the past of England, Europe, the world. Antiquarians are mere connoisseurs offound objects and keepers oflocal records.
Howe is an antiquary (down to the point of lacking a doctoral or even university degree). She is a collector of oddities-of books, manuscripts, religious

3:lr

ii: :::, Ji :': ': i' .il

antiquarian New England, Pennsylvania, and New york, I cling to you with all my
divided attention, itinerantly (M, 66)
Voices I am following lead me to the margins. Anne Hutchinson's verbal expression is barely audible in the scanty second- or third-hand records of her two trials. Dorothy Talbye, Mrs. Hopkins, Mrs. Dyer, Thomas Shepard, Mrs. Sparhawk,

Brother Crackbone's wife, Mary Rowlandson, Barbary Cutter, Cotton Mather may
have been searching for grace in the wilderness of the world. They express to me
a sense of unrevealedness. Theywalk in my imagination and I love them. (BM,
a)

ln her " Prefac e" to Framestructures, in the section or fragment entitled "The Angel in the Library," Howe gives us something like a genealogy of her method:

"Antiquarianism," she says, "is as old as historical writing"-and in fact undenvrites it:
lnGibbon andHisRomanEmpire, David

P. Iordan shows the ways The Dectine and Follofthe


partially built on the research ofskeptics and historical pyrrhonists outside the universities. Pyrrhonists were usually proud to be catted amateurs.

Romon Empirewas

often their research developed out of a need to classi! their own collections of
coins, statues, vases, inscriptions, emblems, etc.; and the work demanded new
tactics. Gibbon calls the literary results ofthe labors ofthese dilettante researchers the "subsidiary rays" of history. The best known defender of uncertainty in
history, Pierre Bayle, depended heavily on the work of antiquarians. Studies of
medals and inscriptions were more reliable less subject to human corruption, he
felt. Bayle's first idea wasn't to write an encyclopedia rather he hoped to produce
a record of mistakes. . . . Bayle's Historical and critical Dictionary follows the spirit of
coordination's lead rather than a definite plan. Trivial curiosities and nonsensical
subjects are kernels to be collated like tunes for a fact while important matters are
neglected. (FS, r7-r8)

This last sentence tells the tale: what falls beneath the threshold of academic
attention-the low overlooked by the high-is what Howe gathers into her
work. TheMidnrght contains an anecdote of hervisit in r991 to Harvard's Houghton Library to examine Emily Dickinson's manuscripts. Naturally her first experience upon entering is ofghosts inhabiting a panoptical space:

(and poetic) practices, archaic forms or idioms of English, and particularly


vanished communities, misfits, nomads, and keepers of the fringe:

Passing through this firstvestibule I find myselfin an oval reception antechamber


about 35 feetwide and zo feet deep underwhat appears to be a ceilingwith a dome
at its apex. I think I see sunlight but closer inspection reveals electric light con-

woy-Ca lvi n ists, Congregatio na I ists, Ana baptists, Ra nters, Quakers, Shakers, Sandemans, Rosicrucians, Pietists, reformers, pilgrims,
traveling preachers, stro[[ing players, peddlers, pirates, captives, mystics, embroiderers, upholsterers, itinerantsingers, penmen, impostors scattered throughout

cealed under a slightly dropped form, also ova[, illuminating the ceiling above.
This first false skytight resembles a human eye and the central oval disc its,.pupil." Maybe ghosts exist as spatiotemporal coordinates, even if they themselves
tlo not occupy space, even ifyou've never seen one, so what? Ifthe design ofthe

Com e aw

ay--:f his

w ay, this

52
antechamber can be read in terms of power and regimes of library control, and if
.,presentty,, ,,occupy" papers, you need to understand the present tense of
ghosts

the antiquiry of sounds that Howe articulates, as in these lines in The Midnight
that derive from the Middle English poem "The Owl and the Nightingale":

"occupy." (M, rzo-zr)'8

lnterestingly, Susan Howe experiences ghosts as familiars, but experiences


herself as an alien presence: her clothing possibly a violation of Harvard research decorum-"and I have a new monogrammed black leather Coach briefthis
case my husband gave me for my birthday because we knew I was making
we
have
so
degree
college
has
a
us
of
Neither
professorial.
trip and it seemed
that feeling of failure in common and are always at war with what we wear" (M,
rzr). And then there is the question of how to sound. Told that the Dickinson
materials are not available, and asked to show proof that she has a right to
inquire after them, Howe

think:

driven up that day from Connecticut and booked into the Howard lohnson
Motel, my pencils are sharpened, notepaper ready. I have waited weeks for this
moment. I think of the disarming of the Antinomians in r637 coinciding with the
founding of Harvard college in cambridge, a provincial village of mainly British
immigrants. I think of Roger Williams and the "gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world." I think
about the rattle of statistical traffic. Where and when did Engtish prosodial gramI have

mar become American? As a hatFlrish or half-Angto-lrish woman, I know an auditimence will always react to the materiality of the voice as a sign. Deepness of
despair'
angry
and
bre is preferable to shrill. I am feeling a sense of humiliation
I know my reaction is extreme. I can hear my voice running into its irksome high
pitch, jostling genteel decorum. The librarians are feeling its ugly assault. (M, tz6)

Recall Howe's love of her mother's voice, whereas of herself and her sister
Fanny she writes: "Our voices are grotesquely shrill-the way we pronounce
or don,t pronounce r's and u's, Amuurrica, waaturrr. Our Iong nasal a's: Baaast-

n, haarr-br, p40k, caa. The horribly dropped s in Yes to form a sort ofneighing eeYea. I can underline letters and use italics for emphasis, but two ears
cannot be in two places at once, such marks are charades" (M, r3z). voices are
not disembodied; better to say that they are uncontrollable and uncontainable singularities, apt to break out or in upon you in their most unwanted
forms. But they are incarnated in books as well as in oneself and others (past
and present)-imagine bodies as well as libraries as forms or regions of wilderness where unheard-of voices resound. lnThe Midnight Howe cites Henry
he called
lames,s complaintagainst"'our national use ofvocal sound,"'which
,,.slovenly-an absolutely inexpert daub of unapplied tone,"' as if sound were
a kind of paint (M, r3z). Yet it is precisely the nonconformity or, more exactly,

Stille one bare worde


iseon at bare beode
iseon at bare beode
Fleao westerness iseo

Opertuo go andsware (M,39)

Compare to the Middle English original: "Me may iseon at pare neode / Hwan
me schal harde wike beode" (lines 529-3o), (roughly) "lt can be seen in hard
times / From whom hard work shall be demanded."
Concluding note on the anecdote. The historiographical equivalent of the anti-

nomian or the misfit is the lowly anecdote, which is one of the forms Howe
uses to contextualize her lyrics, asinThe Midnight, a volume inspired by Howe's
discovery one day in a gift shop of Bed Hongings: ATrestise on Fqbrics and Styles in
the Curtaining of Beds, t65o-r850. We lack a good theory of the anecdote, which
is perhaps not just one thing. Anecdotes sometimes adorn official historical
narratives, and also sometimes subvert them, because they inhabit the underbelly of history. ln "Anecdote and History" Lionel Gossman tells the story of
Procopius, who produced a history in eight books of Emperor Justinian's wars
against the Persians, Vandals, and Goths, but he also composed his Anekdota,
a "secret history" of lustinian's court-"instances of the most brutal exercise
of despotic power, as well as scurrilous tales of palace and family intrigue, that
were completely at odds with the celebratory narrative of Procopius's official
History." To which Gossman adds: "Notsurprisingly, the friends of power, those
concerned with maintaining public images and decorum, have generally been

fearful of anecdotes and have lost no opportunity to denigrate them, while


at the same time enjoying them in private and, when necessary, using them
against their enemies."'s This observation suggests that from the anecdote a
different conception of the self emerges from the one we extract (Ricoeur-like)
from Aristotelian forms of narrative-epic, history, biography, and (especially) autobiography and the novel (originally a species offorged autobiography,
as

Hugh Kenner once s aid ofTheStrange and SurprisingAdventures ofRobinson

Crusoe,

product of Aristotelian forms of narrative, let us say, is inevitably large-scale, like Odysseus, Oedipus, and the subsequent "great men"
of history. The product of the anecdote is, like the anecdote itse[[, small-scale,
Gentleman [r5]). The

one could even say "minimalist," being loca[, frequently personal, and merely
ctrrious:

55

54
of bed hangings is in a legend from the lrth century. After

Mary Manning whose brain, nimble and observant as it was, could not keep pace

of bad luck a seamstress named Thorgunna got fed up and left her home
somewhere in the stormy Outer Hebrides. ln England it didn't take long for
special notice of the immigrant's fantastically embroidered needlework to get
around. Soon she was in danger of being Promoted to the witch category' Trouble
followed trouble until she warned that ownership of her hangings could mean
curtains. Coulds are iffr. Throwing caution to the winds, she either burned or
tossed her tapestries out. It's an aesthetics oferasure. (M, qC-CS)

with a tongue so caustic that even her native city (unchanged and unchanging

The earliest account


a run

Or again, a page later:

ln "The Boston Upholstery Trade, voo-175o," Brock lobe tells us Samuel Grant
owned a shop in Boston called the Crown and Cushion for fiftyyears. His most
prolific worker was Elizabeth Kemble, a widow. Betlveen 1766 and 1768 she produced eighty-seven sets of hangings, fifty-three of cheney, eighteen oI harateen,
eight of printed fabrics, two of calico, and six of unspecified material for field
beds. Mrs. Kemble earned one shilting four pence a day. If style is a means and

not

an end, does this historical anecdote illustrate genius in its manic state? (M, a6)

The history of bed-hangings, an antiquated practice, is made of anecdotes-as

is the history of insomniacs, who (starting with Howe herself) appear with
great regularig inThe Midnight (ghosts, interestingly, from Howe's earlier writings): there is Frederick Law Olmstead, superintendent of the New York De-

partment of Public Parks and one of the ciry planners of Buffalo, New York, of
whom Howe includes a number of anecdotes; likewise Charles sanders Peirce,
one ofwhose "earliest memories was of being taken to hear Emerson lecture"
(M, 4g)-Emerson, who preferred architecture to embroidery (M, 46-47)." Another early memory was of playing rapid games of double dummy from ten in

the evening until early sunrise with his father, the mathematician Benjamin
Peirce. In dummy at whist, an imaginary player is represented by an exposed
'hand'is managed byand serves as Partnerto one of the players. In double
dummy two 'hands' are exposed and each of the players manages two exposed
'hands' at once. Naturally Peirce became an insomniac" (M, 49). But for the

most part the anecdotes, citations, definitions, memories, and illustrations


that make upThe Midnighr are genealogical, that is, rooted in the handed-down
material possessions of the Irish side of Susan Howe's family, from which her
mother, Mary Manning, emerges as the principal ghost:
ln May 1944 the actor and director Michedl Liammdir pubtished an excerPt from
his unpublished memoirs called "Some Talented Women" in Sean o'Faoldin's
magazine The Bell. lt included a description of my mother: Rehearsals were in
progress for

new play, "Youth's

theseos on" by a

new

authoress-a Dublin girl called

since Sheridan brought its greatest social activity to light in his most famous comedy and laid the blame on London) was a

little in awe of her, and one all but looked

for a feathered heel under her crisp and spirited skirts. (M, 5o)

An anecdote, this, that itself produces subsequent anecdotes about Richard


Brinsley Sheridan, whose grandfather produced a dictionary showing how the
words that make up the English language should be pronounced, and whose
play, The Riyals, is about Howe's obsessive theme, namely impersonation,

mistaken identity-or perhaps, in the spirit of Mary Manning, the theatrical


nature of the subject who inhabits or is inhabited by multiplicities (formed
by a plurality of voices). There are doubles everyrryhere-double truths ("dialtheism" [M, 6g*Zo]), double-dealings ("Above the shoulders poetry and
philosophy-below, the feathered heel" [M, 7z]), "double words for everything" (M, 77).The upshot is that no single thought, much less description or
account, can capture the selfofSusan Howe, who describes the collage form of
The Midnightasfollows: "l am assembling materials for a recurrent return somewhere. Familiar sound textures, deliverances, vagabond quotations, preservations, wilderness shrubs, little resuscitated patterns. Historical or miraculous.
Thousands of correlations have to be sliced and spliced" (tvt, SS). lmagine this
as an account of self-formation.

57
I began

all this months ago, years maybe-in lune, anyway , of rgg4


as it were, follow a poem that kept itself apart from me

thought I could,

And from itself


A

short lyric of shifs

A page
A
I

or two at most

poem of metamorphoses,

writing in lost contexts

would write a line or two

No more
And go away
And come back another day only to add something that would change everything

(8c,63)

A POEM ABOUT

LAUGHTER AND FORGETTING


'

'

ril

':':'

i.;ll.,.ji

.t:)a)

,....'t ,.''.l''

l:,j:',..

niants a bonden comedy

lvn

Poetry at this time, I believe, has the capaciry and perhaps the obligation
to enter those specific zones known as borders, since borders are by
definition addressed to foreignness, and in a complex sense, best
captured by another Greek word, xenos. It, too, means "stranger" or

"foreigner," but in a sense that complicates the notion


barbaros.

-Lyn

ej

as

we find it in

inian, " Barbarism" (Ll, 326)

It seems reasonable to approach Lyn Hejinian's ABorder Comedy (zoot) by first


consulting the things she has to say about borders in her book ofessays, The
Language of Inquiry-for example, that they are sites of "encountef' (L1,44)
and milieus of "experience" (Ll,3z7), and that, perhaps more important, they
are mobile or fluid rather than fixed: "Like the dream landscape, the border
landscape is unstable and perpetually incomplete. It is a landscape of discontinuities, incongruities, displacements, dispossession. The border is occupied
by ever-shifting images, involving objects and events constantly in need of redefinition and even literal renaming, and viewed against a constantly changing background" (Ll,3z7). Borders, in otherwords, are restless-like language
(ML, r7), or like the writing ofA Eorder Comedy itself'.'

56

Why write this way, as if starting the poem over again every "line or two"?
Gertrude Stein's answer is canonical: "Beginning again and again is a natural

thing, even when there is a series." Or imagine a kind of writing that requires
thatyou leave things behind. A "poetics ofthe frontier," Hugh Kenner once
said, means you can take only very few books with you when setting out for
a new world-your Bible, maybe Pilgrim's Progressi European literature disappears from memory.'And we know that in composing music and poetry lohn
Cage and lackson Mac Low took recourse to various forms of chance operations in order to leave themselves behind-to free their compositions from
history-laden forms of intentionality hidden in the ego. A Border Comedy borders these lines of thought, and also redraws them.
There are closed borders, to be sure, but for Hejinian the border is the type
and figure ofopen form-"notthatatwhich somethingstops but, as the Greeks
recognized, that from which something begins" (BC, r8). A border is a crosspoint
at which one begins a journey or experience (Erfahrung)-setting out on an expedition rather than getting on a train with schedules and destinations: recall
those early explorers Hejinian celebrates in "strangeness" who describe metonymically the particulars of their progress without a sense of an ending or a
comprehensive view of what is happening to them or even where they are.: A
border by definition borders a world where everything is otherwise ("involving
objects and events constantly in need of redefinition and even literal renaming"), a no-man's-land or perhaps a future in which one can no longer remain
oneself but becomes subject to forms of estrangement, like the anonymous
"magician" who appears early in ABorder Comedy, who is precisely not enclosed
by boundaries, limits, definitions, or frames of reference, and who (therefore?)
"lived in confusion" (BC, r3)-and also, it appears, without a self or identity
that, as in Paul Ricoeur's theory, an Aristotelian narrative would confer:+

59
There was no accounting for her mutabitity since she lived entirely alone

An anecdotal story is merely

But the number ofevents it takes to create the probable sequence

Consisting of separate facts

Necessary to cause a change in any person's state

Each

Is far larger

Therefore any account of it must

span

tenuously connected to the next

What we respond to are the attractiveness of the facts

than one might think


be very

And the view each one provides

long

And during all that time

There are even such things as philosophical anecdotes

Reality moves around

Going around

Changing orientation (BC, r3-14)

Beautifully feathered and perfectly circlin gGC,

Aristotelian narrative edits the material of a life in order to make it continuous and coherent; the magician's life has more in it (more changes) than any
narrative can contain. A chronicle is what her life requires (and the chronicle
is, in principle, or like time itself, interminable: it may stop but does not end)'
An odd figure, this magician, with no audience to fool.s lmagine a magi-

An

cian who dwells, not behind the scenes, manipulating them, but within
them as within a "dream landscape" of "ever-shifting images." Hers is not
so much Spenser's mutability as the one Proteus suffers (or enjoys): Proteus, who is constituted by shape-shifting and so has, strictly speaking, no life
one could give an account of, unless it would just be an account of his endless transformations-a progress that would be hard to follow. As Hejinian
history of mutability is very long / And hence it has long sentences,
with increase in semantic duration" (BC, zr)-rather like A Border Comedy itsel[, whose lines (long and short) form sentences without periods that move
digressively or metonymically from one topic to another ("A fable, fate, an
infant prophet, or infant bandit, banal, infamous, professing cacophony or
blame" [BC, zr]), resisting (although not entirely defeating) the formation of
patterns thatwould give us the sense of a whole superior to its parts ("the very
says, "The

purpose ofpattern is to be reassuring" [BC, t5]).


One could put the matter technically, as Heiinian does in an interview with
reference to seriality: "Time as it divides produces repetitions and permuta-

tions; time as it accumulates produces sequences, series" (Ll, 167). My Lrfe is


structured according to divisions: forty-five sections composed of forty-five
sentences corresponding (in the 1987 edition) to forty-five years ofthe poet's
life. ABorderComedy,by contrast, is cumulative. No one wished it longer, but it

could have been. Long poems are those one learns to live with.
Cumulative, but of what, exactly? Arguably (if only roughly) a basic unit ofA
BorderComedy (beyond the line and the sentence) is the anecdote, aboutwhich
the second book ofthe poem has a good deal to say:

zl)

(A "span" is paratactic, like the distance between


is

thumb and forefinger, which

the original meaning of "span."):


I

ust as, in the old days (to quote Victor Shklovsky)

One anecdotal factwould be followed by another


And many togetherwould make a story

Consisting of "separate facts tenuously connected"


And conspired
Story to story
To which everyone should add and be added

And be confused (BC,3r)

An anecdote is (loosely) a brief story told from below (outside the grand narrator's panorama) and which, being local and incidental, does not take us very
flar

("time requires anecdotes to contradict it"

[BC,

rz]): it belongs structurally

to the "round," as in a round of ditties, jokes, ordrinks thatform a momentary

circle of companions-"To which everyone should add and be added / And be


confused," no doubtwith one another, or maybe like the magician (confusion

reigns at every border). Meanwhile philosophical anecdotes are like birds,


"Beautifully feathered and perfectly circling," as if geometrically, or perhaps
like birds of prey. Or say that it is in the nature of the anecdote to make its way
around by way of recitation: it is (like gossip and the secret) a word-of-mouth
genre (BC, ro9).6 On Hejinian's or Shklovsky's theory, the anecdote is paratactic both in itself-"separate facts tenuously connected" (if at all)-as well as
in its connection to other anecdotes, which would at best hang together in the
loose and baggy form of a collection not bound by logical or cognitive rules,
which is how a serial poem develops (avastbetween without extremities):
Not to search for the perfect poem, as Spicer said to Robin Blaser
But to let the writing of the moment go atong its own path
Explore and retreat

61

60
And never be fully realized (confined)

within boundaries ofone poem

Or the perimeters of the mental life of one person's day (BC, t87-88)

As Spicer said:

"lt does not

have to

fit together."z (Compare Hejinian on "the

chaos that good stories introduce" IBC, z6].)


lust so, proliferation and mobility (restlessness) are the distinctive features

ofthe form of

ABorder Comedy:

I can say

my sentences which I dot by day

They are

full of disjointed dreams, audacities, unsystematic lampoons of

systems, and all manner of reversed reveries (BC, 7r)

"From wing to skin / And


fart to forge / Without premeditation." SelFcontained speech would presumably have a beginning, middle, and end, but maybe it would just be speech

seems to be searching for (in order to breach) the limit of this venerable principle. The poem is not governed by any principle of exclusion, much
Comedy

of identiry. lts borders are oPen to what happens, or fails

to happen-"discontinuities, incongruities, displacements, dispossession":


imagine a poem as a container of the uncontainable, not to mention the discarded or dispensable ("reversed reveries" defeating their telling):
And so begins a true biography of a true person emitting a story

Though it comes out strangely


Lacking in outcome
Losing face

"it"

All over the map

is a narrative

clich6"

sion, or anyway no comprehensive (much less any certain) reading, because


the mutability of contexts confines the construction of meaning to no more
than a few lines at a time, destabilizing them in the bargain by depriving them
of any standing that an end-point might provide: think of Beckett's Textsfor
Nothing: "it's the end gives meaning to words."s Or, in Hejinian's version: "lt's
the beginning and end that are sorry messengers / And the bearers ofwriters'
lies / About anything" (BC, r9):
ambition being to unite the process of transformation with that of
interpretation

ifthat

is taken as didacticism

And

Then what have you learned from this poem


And what have I learned as I'm writing

Through

Without premeditation

Whispering [or disturbance

sequence

it

ofwilled culminations, in the culmination ofwill

And Fart to forge

Though the vowel sounds change in self-contained speech

Of my consciousness (the best partition)

What the true person says is uncontained

Which is a[[ that lies between what I did yesterday and what I'll do next

The poem walks away and it remains

Plurals

Then I shout, Hey, get outl

They're more vulnerable than before

5htt!

To interpretation, paranoia (BC, Z:)

And it clears off(BC, zs)

A certain garrulity is perhaps inevitable ("Excessive difference elicits babble"


5r]). The "true person" is not opposed to the false friend ("as l've said
[BC,

before, there are no opposites" [8C,03]), iust as the

"l"

is not opposed to the

chases

of them. Two lines from "The Person" come to mind: "The difficulty of reading
is such / that there is no comprehension" (CPH, r5z). There is no comprehen-

Between Full stoPs

wingto skin

47)-but the one who

Of course one can no more contain these lines in a reading than in a writing

With squeakand thump


From

(BC,

away after the poem departs (if that's how it goes).8

My

Returning to memory in the round clown's face

as

that contains a sefas opposed to a person, as per Hejinian's distinction in "The


Person and Description," where the "uniqueness of the person" is said to be
"very different from his or her essential selftrood" (Ll,zot), which is what poems are sometimes thought to express. In the passage just cited the "poem,"
no doubt serial in its construction, wanders offwhile "the true person" (if that
is what it is) remains-recall the line cited earlier: "l thought I could . . . follow
a poem that kept itself apart from me" (BC, 63). Only here the "1" is not a "true

person"-"The term 'l'

Recall William Carlos Williams: "A poem can be made of anything." ABorder

less a principle

"not-I" but rather forms relations of proximity,

increasing-it's all about "them"

What would it be to unite "the process of transformation with that of interpretation"? Recall the (by now) well-known statement from "The Refusal of
Closure": Whereas the closed text preempts interpretation ("all elements of
thc work arc dircctc<l towar<l

;r

single rcading of it"), the "'open text,' by defi-

nition, is open to the world and particularly to the reader. lt invites participation, rejects the authoriry of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy,
the authority implicit in other . . . hierarchies. lt speaks for writing that is
generative rather than directive. . . . The'open text' often emphasizes or foregrounds process, either the process oforiginal composition or ofsubsequent
compositions by readers" (Ll, +:). But when Proteus is driving the motor of
composition we may be in danger of falling between the lines. ln ABorder Comedy, atany rate, the reader is hardly or barely in a position to put together what
the poet is perpetually setting apart, unless it is the case that here we have a
text so strangely determined that we may begin imagining ghostly inaccessible intentions hovering over and around us at every turn: "Although I feel that
I too am being watched / Which may explain something about my poetics"
(BC, 89). The strange [ine aboutwriting in "a sequence ofwill culminations, in
the culmination of will," might be thought to suggest the whole art and craft
of paranoia, which sees purpose and design, not to mention authority, more
vividly in their absence. "And the pleasure of seeing intentionality everywhere
is incredible / It makes everything in the universe mental" (BC, r7o). As if to
ward off such madness, Hejinian's advice in "The Rejection of Closure" is that
one should read an open text in much the same aleatory manner in which it
was composed (not trying to put together what has been decomposed, but
composing anew from the material of the text): "Any reading of these works
is an

improvisation; one moves through the work not in straight lines but in

curyes, swirls, and across intersections, to words that catch the eye or attract

attention repeatedly" (Ll, 44)-words like "paran oia," for example:

Reference for which even the plenitude of the world is inadequate

rhyme

great lock ofletters

An "excess of referential and symboric detail," indeed. A poem not governed


byany principle ofexclusion defeats the raw ofthe same, or the law of

noncontradiction: Thisisnotanappte."rtis," we are told, "the markof a foreign


soul to
trust non-rational perceptions" (BC, 63), but foreign souls (barbarians)
is what
we are, orwhat the poem makes of us who lose ourway in it. In
heressaytitled
"Barbarism" Hejinian cites the critic Marcel Raymond: "'To
become a barbarian . . . is, first of all, to receive sensations and to leave them a certain
amount
of free play, not to place them in a logical frame-work and not to attribute
to
them the objects [for exampre, appres] that produce them; it is a method
of
detaching oneself from an inherited civirized form in order to rediscover
a
greater plasticity and expose oneself to the imprint of things,,, (LI,
335.n4):
That's why I've kept this writing of fifteen books unfinished
Fifteen underway
move From one to the next

if some other writer had been writing

And each of my returns to each of the

But here you come now with a cauliflower (BC, 156)

book

is

prompted

To immediates in a sudden present

However, it is difficult to read ABorder Comedy without listening or without reference because it is, like the magician's life, a poem with too many
meanings-each line is an excess of words or, as Lyotard would say, an excess

ofappetite

That recurrently duplicates itself, interminably fissures itself


And contradicts itself without remaining the same (BC, ro5)

As

the language of paranoia lacks world enough to match

As objects

From

Each of which takes a long time and considerable thought


And that passage of time facilitates forgetting
Then forgetting makes what's been written unfamiliar

The paranoid are afflicted with an overabundance ofreference

Thus the apples are effortlessly disguised

Atthe end ofa daythatwent byofits own accord. . . .


Or as one must run through the alphabet to complete

But from your motionless face I suspectyou aren't Iistening

ofphrases whose linkages cannot be terminated ("as Lyotard says, for


to be the last one / Another one is needed to declare it" [BC, ro6]):'o

Their denarrativization having been achieved


Through an excess oIreferential and symbolic detail
As in a baroque sleep around a medieval dream

In the course ofmany days adding every day


A few lines to a book

lust reading
Without reference

So

That could never be traced back

phrase

Only pastness, which provides forgetting, can provide it (BC, r5r)

what about this forgetting? Recall the point (or necessity) of leaving things
or
oneself behind. ln a brief review of the poem Jennifer scappetone
says th;t,,A
llorder Comedy's compositional process results from Hejinian's
enduring intercst in the way memory determines pattern (i.e., in pattern,s ,psychical ,,past_
rrt'ss"'), and accounts for thc work's disjunction: she adds lines ,"qr"niirlly
,rt ross tlrc pocm's Iiltcr,n h.,ks all sirnrrltaneorrsly'underway,
order to

--in

64
tap the lapses generated by time's passage."" As il in contrast to epic tradition, ABorder Comedy were a poem composed by forgetting, paradoxically raising amnesia to the level of poetic inspiration and, therefore, to that of Poetic
experience as well.
For example, one might imagine the poet's experience of her poem, and
hence the reader's, as that of picking up found texts-something similar, per-

haps, to Louis Zukofsky's experience of returning after many years to his


own earlier writing, in which poems seem like found objects arranged randomly in a museum exhibit.'' Forgotten writing is an experience of alterity,

else-some anonymous other-had been writing one's poem:


"Personality has nothing to do with it-subjectivity counts for nothing" (BC,

as if someone

to a creative principle or at the very least a principle (and practice) offreedom


from whatever bears down on us from the past and, for all we know, from the
future as well, since it is in the future that promises and prophecies fall due.'s
We may think of this as an achievement of Gertrude Stein's "continuous present." So in the passage just cited forgetting is, like the border, a starting point,
a beginning, a frontier way of writing differently-an anti-Proustian break
with "memory and its function in the associative, interpretive linking / That
constitutes what we consider making sense / Of experience. " Not fitting things
together but dissociation as from the upright first-person singular and all that
goes with it (" 1 would get rid of I if I could" lLl, zrz)):
When I was young, for example, whenever

other, or perhaps (echoing and even exceeding Cage


and Mac Low) mere chance: "lf everything that occurred did so through pure
chance all movementwould take place without transition" (BC, r74), one event
dispatching another, as if the basic unit of time were the interruption, or as if
the purpose of time (pace Ricoeur) were to dissociate past and future from the
r53).,3 Some anonymous

But in the end the form was too hierarchical


And it wasn't that I wanted to be

lmportant things have occurred


Which immediately afterwards I forget
As if to alter their effects and write this diffbrently
That

man in any case but only that I wanted freedom

Without having to sacrifice the disguising conventions and a domestic Iife


(BC, r87)

One can read ABorderComedy as a poem of freedom, of diversions, digressions,

One day after another

It causes me to wonder in a new way, from a new vantage

wrote I was a man

Constructed with too many ups and downs

present (which is why the figure of lapsing applies equally to time, memory,
and desire):

So I mentally imitated men

point

offorgetting

About memory and its function in the associative, interpretive linking


That constitutes whatwe consider making sense
Ofexperience (BC, r99)

and dislocations in which everything becomes otherwise than is the case,


which means in particular the experience of freedom from categories and distinctions (containments) of every sort. Thus gender-switching (and -blurring)
is a recurrent motif in the poem, with its "Lesbian boys" (BC, rzz), its "hotel
catering to cross-dressing clientele / Engaged in a play on words" (BC, 94), its
"male woman" and "female man" (BC, r98). "Writing is cross-dressing" (BC,
zr), as we remember from My Life: " As such, a person on paper, I am androgynous" (ML, ro5). The idea is not to be either

Heidegger thought that having an experience with language does not occur
in the speaking of it but rather when words faiI or get away from us, going off
on their own, to which Derrida added the experience of the pun, which is a
word-event whose intentionality is in the sound-play of language itself-a
play that philosophy struggles to suppress in the interest of univocity but
which poetry sets free: "Aliquid, nonquid, thought quid, nought" (BC, zo4).'+
Likewise, especially after a certain age, one exPeriences memory most dramatically not in the possession of it but in its loss ("And here a tale comes to
mind and leaves again" [ac, gs]). The question is whether such a loss is altogether a bad thing. Hejinian seems (in many places) distinctively Nietzschean
in her conception (or experience) oFforgetting, which is somcthing very close

man or

woman but to be elusive

or evasive (the gist of comedy):'6


The flesh often offers answers that do not answer the question raised

Will I be happy?
But that question cannot be addressed to fate

or rather, fate can't answer


Happiness is gratuitous, free
A response to chance,

to hazard, accident

And hence it is itselfhazardous, precarious (BC, r8r)

Fate" is a tragic term (terminal, fixed): instead of a border there is a crossroads


whcrc everything turns toward a predetermined end.'7 A Border Comedy, by con"

trast, is a lr.rdic poem filled with outbursts of craziness-

66

67

;:ii

iri:al!:{.l,.

herself(front and back) and profit by it


Ptotting a delightful break-out from culture's close quarters

She must see

By

dipping her hands in mayonnaise and running them over her buttocks
(BC,

u5)

other bodily rebellions: "And then a slender woman appeared in a


narrative sentence and loudly farted" (BC, rz3)' $here is surely more farting
and pissing in ABorder Comedy than in any other poem in modern memory.) Not
surprisingly Leo Tolstoy arrives to complain-

-among

It's clear he doesn't like


He says

By contrast, A Border Comedy-"without dirty (words) feet I cannot dance


(speak)" (BC, zo)-is as non-Aristotelian in its comedy as it is in its form ("The
actor wearing a phallus so engorged that his whole body laughs" [BC, r88]); it
brings the low and the broad back to life in defiance of seminar-room decorum:
Diderot may have been right
The mind may be nothing without the impulse-ridden body
To laugh at (BC, r3o)

And speak of the

A Border Comedy

it's an awkward act of affirmation

cheek!

Your mouth has become a muzzle, dear

Bobbing where the world can take no more than the impress of a nod
But I (with the point of view of a man, so I am a man) don't laugh

You are doomed to be chased by hunters

All night a mocking bird or bricklayer or bibliomancer and I have been switching
identities
That way we can maintain inconsistencies (BC, 79)

Floundering

Napoleon appears "in his Donald Duck pajamas" (BC, t4), and Aristotle is transformed like a character in Ovid (this is, after all, a "Poem of meta-

-while

morphoses" [8C,63]):

Over the elements on all fours

Flapping
Fuckingwith unwilling movements (BC, roo)
He

didn't know she would

say

something funny

But she untied some babies and did


Morewomen morewords!
More geese moreturds! (BC,

In a series

of slaps, of smacks, of boPs, ofwhacks

tz4)

Nietzsche's principle
"lt's false if it doesn't make you laugh at least once"

As Liuba as Phyllis

(BC, r48)

Who gets Aristotle

"But what is laughter?" the poem asks, and then lists a number of familiar answers from Hobbes to Freud (BC, 8o-8r). Possibly, being usually inappropriate
(think of fits of giggling in church or classroom), laughter is a kind of seizure:

On all fours
To gallop her

through the garden

Saddled and bridted (BC, tt6)

the philosopher Simon Critchley says that humor,


especially in its eighteenth-century (and thus most rational) expression, is a
superior form of comedy because it is wry and witty and elicits a smile rather
than a laugh.'8 Laughter is too often a form of cruelty-it is one of the pleasures of xenophobia, for example.'s Critchley prefers the Earl of Shaftesbury to
laughter's prime movers, Aristophanes, luvenal, and Rabelais.'o Hejinian puts

ln his book 0n

Humour

To those of the former innuendo is more so (BC, 86)

Whose only wish is to stop (BC, r6t)

Or, more wickedly, as in "an old woman laughing":

l-ifting the sentimental curtain bottom

ofold

Aristotle himself pointed out


To the authors ofthe latter indecent language is funny
As

The laughter ofa laugher

She uncovers

it this way:
The authors ofnew comedies differ from the authors

Laughter
And what kind oflaugh is being laughed

And inserting her nicety (also known as philosopher's willow)


Irrto a milky little actualgrammarwrinkle

t)f veracity (BC, r76)

68

i;

lli !r

69

ii i:

i.i

Or, for no reason, as when things get out of hand, which is all that chance
means, it just happens:
Noting the numbers of people who've suffered wasp stings or been bitten by
snakes or by cats, those who've been pecked by ravens or kicked by a horse,
those who've been butted by goats or even gored by pigs

Through no fault of their own


It's just luck thatwe're caught in the web of comedy
And poisoned by a spider

Which raises

The strugglers succumb to laughter

other

since the source oflaughter lies not in the funny situation but in the one who
laughs (BC, t55)

lf

ABorder Comedy has a

the body, or more exactly the endwhose various parts, functions, and secretions

heroine-hero, it

less series of anonymous bodies

is

fill justaboutevery page of the Poem:


The ineffable poise

der to live. These bodily fluids, this defllement, this shit are what life withstands,

condition

A moral struggle ensues

saY each

with blood and pus, or the sickly acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does
not srgnrfi death. In the presence of signified death-a flat encephalograph, for
instance-l would understand, react, accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in or-

A wound

hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my
as a living being. My body extricates itself,, as being alive, from that border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains
in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit-codere, cadaver.''

welt

Which in turn occasions slaPPing

Which is to

with his heel are bodies reduced into flesh, as are the heroes ofancient tragedy
(Agamemnon in his bath, various kings ofThebes). In her book on abjection
lulia Kristeva gives the flesh a splendid articulation:

ofthe cadaver

Its organs in its naked hand

Kristeva is a bit too serious, perhaps, butyou get the point. Living flesh is almost an oxymoron, perhaps because living in flesh is a borderline condition.

lndeed, unchecked growth of flesh-uncut hair and toenails, among other


protuberances-gives the definition of "monstrous." And flesh is what I must
abject in order to achieve and maintain self-possession, which illness, pain,
and agingworkto subvert-and theyworkwithout fail: the trim sculpted body
of youth eventually decays into the loose and bagry monster of an old man
("Excessive change in time will destroy the sensing body parts" [BC, z3])." For
which there is no remedy (or other ccnclusion) than to put old bones to rest:

Making the Familiari$ it had with itself available


Displaying its physicality, a physicaliry it still has in common with us

It should not be surprising then that the skull

But which is now all we share

It's expressive though not ofself(S, z7)

Being otherwise completely severed from each other


The autonomy and independence (anonymiry) and ultimately the authority of its
body parts
Having become comPlete (BC,

to:-+)

Indeed, "flesh" would be the more exact term for what A Border Comedy is all
about. The body (soma) is a Greek and famously heroic concept (although,
interestingly, etymotogically soma refers to a corpse). lt is a masculine figure
of strength and beau{; lean and hard, it is built for action, struggle, and victory, and

as

we know from Homer it never laughs (gods and fools-Penelope's

suitors-laugh; Achilles and odysseus weeP but do not laugh). The body
achieves its apotheosis in marble. Flesh by contrast is a biblical concept (bosor

in Hebrew). lt is a figure of passivity and weakness; it hungers and thirsts, it

eats and is eaten, it is soft and corpulent, wet and smelly, and subject to complaints without number. Defeat is its horizon-mutilated Hcctor and Achilles

is seen

to have a face still

But of course there is no rest-restlessness is the engine of Hejinian's poetics, and at breakneck speed

ghost" (BC,

rz)-"so

it drives ABorder

Comedy,

with its ambulant "border

exhausted by reference it doesn't know it's dead" (BC, 68).

Comedy permeates the border between here and the hereafter as well as every

other boundary, as when "lucky heads . . . speak, sing, advise, prophesy, and
cntertain / Long after their owners are dead" (BC, r16). Or, again,
Like the ravening

thought ofan uttering corpse

Showing emotion, stumbling over sounds


Soft, breathless (BC, r67)
At any rate, flesh is what it comes down to

(with apologies to EdgarAllan Poe):

llctwoen woman and aninral, man and candle

llrt'rc shakcs thc cow;rr<1, lk'sh irr liquid, skin in shreds

]'! ::{ l{, ]rt:ii

Back

mains, not so much a dead author as a figure of catachresis: "Nameless in myself but full of synonyms and homonyms" (BC, ro9).

from the dead

And smellingawful

Withoutwarning
People

vomit

Right there on the dance

fl

floor

Death begins
The promise of resurrection has got to be withdrawn (BC, r4z)

"Death begins," as if spreading like a plague, metonymically, indifferent to


fences and defenses alike, the paradox being that it cannot itself be terminated. The dead return, not to life-"The promise of resurrection has got to
be withdrawn"-but as comic ghouls, creatures of the betvveen, "smelling awanother species of open
ful."'a So one might figure death as an ellipsis . . .
if we follow the
than
death?-which,
foreign
be
more
can
what
form. Anyway,
"has the
poetry
zones
that
border
moral ofthe epigraph above, is one ofthe
capacity and perhaps the obligation to enter" (BC, rz6). Surely this accounts for
the many ghosts and cadavers that roam and litter ABorder Comedy:

It's the ghost out of the cell


Reciting what it remembers, ruling nothing out
Like the narrator known as Anonymous

With his or her anonymous consciousness


But ifthe flesh ofthe ghost is no longer under pressure
Male and female
a

ghost, it's gone

From its unusual or even downright alien position (BC, 54)

Ghosts are notoriously restless, which in Hejinian's world means discursive,


Iiterary, garrulous, in contrast to the mute or anyhow breathless and palpable
cadaver:
The cadaver (the original)

More ghostly, but on the whole much less interesting because, free of its
esh, no longer comic, or anyhow less memorable than A Bor der Comedy's many

surreal comic turns, ofwhich this is one of my favorites:


In church, in the palace, on parade, facing the department head, the policeman,
the administrator, no one laughs
The serf is deprived of the right to smile in

front of the landowner

lifts up his shirt


He is another

So he

And another, wearing high heels, his sex distending his silk dress, was walking

toward me while tenderly sucking pearls


Yes, his hands were clammy

with fear

He knew damn well what was going

on

Which was the equivalentof saying, "Nowwe will change"


With the tail parting and shrinking into whar humans call nice legs
They had yet to be shaved

Reason is an aid to stories

Then, like

| : : i} ii

will not sPeak

The cadaver cannot link imPressions

It is immediate
It lacks habits, is proximate to nothing, will not argue

Norwill it rinse its finger over a word


And mean metamorphosis

Spotting the ironies between aphorisms (BC, ro4)


On this theory it would fo[low that a poet is more ghostly than any fleshly re-

The thorns on them ripped my tongue (BC, 59)

When the serf lifts up his shirt, he reveals himself to be a stranger to the order
ofthings. He opens in any case a border zone where anything goes, nothing

is forbidden, certainly not laughter or horror or

confusion-or whatever

cross-dressing young demon with an extended phallus and metamorphic tail


might inspire in you. If one asks, irrepressibly, what he inspired in the poet, or
speaker, or whoever it is that licked his thorny legs, one answer would surely
be that the spirit ofA Border Comedy is, in the tradition ofAristophanes and Rabelais, anarchic, libidinous, and superbly grotesque.

And I haven't even mentioned the clowns and geese-but time is up and
space is at an end.

fail at these things, but it interrupts them. Barnes had difficulty getting her
book published, revising it several times in order to give it the semblance of
Aristotelian virtues that novels-even avant-garde ones-were (and are) still
expected to possess. Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway are, for all their formal innovations, arguably more integrated than Nighnuood, with its peculiar, edgy, often
sarcastic voice that prefers wild commentary to mere storytelling:

moment he spoke, she placed him. She closed her


into them intently because oftheir mysterious and shocking blue, found himself seeing them still faintly clear and timeless
She did not smile, though the

eyes, and Felix, who had been looking

behind the lids-the long unqualified range in the iris ofwild beasts who have not
tamed the focus down to meet the human eye.
The woman who presents herself to the spectator as a "picture" forever arranged, is for the contemplative mind the chiefest danger. Sometimes one meets
a woman who is beast turning human. Such a person's every movement will re-

AMONG
THE PAGANS

the potyvoGal

poctry

oI karen

on the racial memory; as insupportable a joy as would be the vision of an eland


coming down an aisle of trees, chapleted with orange blossoms and bridal veil,
a hoof raised in the economy of fear, stepping in the trepidation of flesh thatwill
become myth; as the unicorn is neither man nor beast deprived, but human hunger pressing lts breast to its prey.

mac GormaGk

"Are you acquainted with Vienna?" Felix inquired'


peoPle
"Vienna," said the doctor, "the bed into which the common
themselves,
fling
nobility
the
which
of
out
and
ctimb, docile with toil,
do, but not so well but that I remember some

ferocious with dignity-l


to school' flock of
of it still. I remember young Austrian boys going
spots in the sun'
in
different
recess
their
out
quail they were, sitting
smelling of the herd
mouths'
rosy
damp
with
.ry-.t..t"a, bright-eyed,
like sunlight' soon
chiidnood, facts of history glimmering in their minds
proof' Youth is cause'
to be lost, soon to be forgotten, degraded into
we get data"'
neck
the
of
thickening
the
effect is age; so with

-Djuna

duce to an image of a forgotten experience; a mirage of an eternal wedding cast

Barnes, Nightwood

said that her poetic career beOn several occasions Karen Mac Cormack has
Nighwood' a novel Pubgan with the reading, at age sixteen, of Djuna Barnes's
in 1936' Nightwood is a
iished by Faber & faber, under T. S. Eliot's imprimatur,

workwhoseprose(likeDr.MatthewO'Connor'sglorioustalk'citedherein

of consecutive discourse'
the epigraph) disengages itself from the grammar
Nichtwood does not
inctuaiig especially the logical progressions of narrativc'

Such a woman is the infected carrier of the past-before her the structure of
our head and jaws ache-we feel that we could eat her, she who is eaten death
returning, for only then do we put our face close to the blood on the lips of our
fo refathers. (N ighw o o d, 36)

One can imagine Henry lames admiring this passage, but also puzzling over
"a woman who is beast turning human," a metamorphosis that reverses Ovid

in

a way

that a surrealist might envy. Her "every movement will reduce to an

image of a forgotten experience." lt's hard to picture what "an image of a for-

gotten experience" might look like. Iwouldn't have imagined "a mirage of an
eternaI wedding cast on the racial memory" (reference, neither the first nor
Iast, is to Felix's Jewishness) complete with an eland (a species of antelope)
in a bridal procession, with "a hoof raised in the economy of fear," as if the
marriage ceremony were resolving into a sacrificial one. The third paragraph
in the citation is one of my favorites in all of modern literature. Ifyou ask, how
do these sentences hang together (adding up to a portrait ofa lady we would
do well to avoid but never do: "we feel that we could eat her, she who is eaten

(lcath returning"), it takes some time to answer. One could begin by putting
the question to Gertrude Stein, who was perhaps the first to explore the ways
words could be made to form dissonantyet self-contained portraits:

74

75

!-: .i:! !:r rii: t {'

Further alive. Perhaps when the heart stops beating the

A LITTLE CALLED PAULINE


A

tiredness leaves. There are questions but not obvious ones,

tittle calted anything shows shudders.

whole fewwatermelon' There is no pope'


No cut in pennies and little dressing and choose wide soles and little spats really

Come and say what prints all day.

the light would fail. Despite assorted revolutions we order

little lace makes boils. This is not true.

Gracious of gracious and a stamp a blue green white bow a blue green lean, lean

lf it is absurd then it is leadish and nearly set in where there is a tight head.
A peaceful life to arise her, noon and moon and moon. A letter a cold sleeve

two, three ofit but not Van Gogh. (:r)


a

blanket a shaving house and nearly the best and regular window'
Nearer in fairy sea, nearer and farther, show white has lime in sight, show a stitch
of ten. Count, count more so that thicker and thicker is leaning'
cow. Bidding a wedding, widening received treading,

I hope she has her

little

leading mention nothing.


Cough out cough out in the leather and really feather it is not for'
Please could, please could, iam it not plus more sit in when''

think that the kinship between Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein is intimate

and complementary. Provisionally one could say that Barnes remains within
the horizon of the predicate-subjects, verbs, and objects doing their work of
mediation, however digressively and to whatever many strange purposes: her

reticulated prose retains the form if not always the content of what philosophers call "aboutness"; whereas parataxis-the defeat of wholeness and hierto Stein's phrasings, which interrupt the discursive operations that integrate small things into large. Gertrude Stein's is an
insubordinate poetics of the little and the discrete ("a little piece, a little piece

archies of every

our lives past, present, future, to apply to what is ongoing


out of the tempest. lf we line these up there's still the one,

on the toP.

in ltaly,

buying daisies for a non-funereal purpose. Two women


equally shocked. She totd me other colours, occasionally

little spices.
A

any other yellow centre. The furor she caused

sort-is internal

please,,lselectedwritings,4B)),andthisappliestoherwordsandphrasesaswell
asto theworld of dainty Pauline, with her"bluegreenwhite bow." Meanwhile
Djuna Barnes's is a poetics of the long, slow amplification of particulars, as in
the medieval (or is it gothic?) tapestry that the narrator weaves as a gloss on
Felix's gripping encounter with Robin Vote's animal-iris eyes'
Karen Mac Cormack's QuiltDriver Q989) is a text that seems to me to split the
differences (and explore the family resemblances) between Barnes and Stein,
and in the bargain it opens up a conceptual context that helPs us to exPerience
certain kinds of writing that are, even now, more familiar than understood.
Here, for example, is the first paragraph (if paragraph is the word) of Mac cormack's "Reunion the ReProduction"

"Reunion the Reproduction" contains twenty-two such paragraphs of varying length. Like the writings of Barnes and Stein, it lays transparency to rest
but not intelligibility. The task of the reader is (among other things) to understand how such self-interrupting sentences are connected, or at least to experience the ways in which the passage does not just break down into mere
slivers. (Nonlinearity is not mere dispersal or diffusion.) Close reading in Mac
Cormack's case reveals many small internal coherences such as references to
death, color, correctness, order (and, by implication, anarchy)-we narrate
our lives according to Aristotle's rules, but what if we did so according to Van
Gogh's, color and texture trumping continuity and point? As philosophers of
complex systems have explained, chaos is paradoxically a condition of orderly
arrangements. Foreigners and the weather refuse to act predictably, but if we
follow the two carefully as they proceed we will see patterns develop, even if
no reason (or future) can be assigned to them. Rationality is not rule-governed
behavior but the abiliry to negotiate turbulence (an abiliry Aristotle called
phronesis, or practical reason). The coastline ofCalifornia has a form that fractalists can explore in detail, but it duplicates nothing but itself A world of random particles can only be described by reproducing it piece by piece. Death to
universals.
Karen Mac Cormack's Quill Driver situates itself within complexities of this
sort. For example, I read Mac Cormack's work as an ongoing exploration of

lean-FranEois Lyotard's anarchic conception of the phrase.'"Phrqse" is the


French term for sentence as well as our term for grammatical relations beneath the levelof a complete thought, but Lyotard takes it to be the (indefinable) basic unit of language on the hither side of every conceivable grammar,

logic, genre, or norm of discourse, these things simply being some of the
rase regimens" that phrases make possible, but none of these regimes can
s;ry what a phrase is. There is no metaphrase. To be sure, a phrase implies a sayirrg of something to sonrcone about something (the "phrase universe"), but
" ph

77

76
nothing can be said about a phrase in general except that it is capable of [inking up with other Phrases, and there are multiple and heterogeneous forms
of linkages, some of them syntactical (subject-verb-object), some logical (i/i
and some
then), some propositional(s is p), some hermeneutical (this as that),
(indefinitely)
are
there
that
point
is
narrative (this then that), but Lyotard's
more forms of enchainment than those we learn to use in school (reasoning,
describing, questioning, narrating). Phrasing is not systematic construction.
and tanWe inhabit a universe of phrases that are rhizomatically proliferating

gling tike crabgrass. There is no first or final phrase-recall Lyotard:


The paradox

ofthe

tast phrase (or

ofthe last sllence), which

is also the paradox

of

also
the series, should not give x the vertigo of what cannot be phrased (which is
endis
phrasing
that
conviction
irrefutable
the
but
rather
called the fear ofdeath),
it is
less. For a phrase to be the last one, another one is needed to declare it, and
this
and
vertigo
this
give
x
both
should
paradox
the
least,
then not the last one. At
it is
conviction. -Never mind that the last phrase is that last one that x saysl -No,
(D,u)
"current"
address'
or
its
direct
the last one thatx has as

and performative rather than simply informational. In Lyotard's vocabulary,


his writing is aform of pagonism. A pagan is someone who thinks, judges, acts,

and links phrases together without criterio.z ("Pagan," from pagus: boundary,
frontier, or edge. A pagan is someone who traverses these things.) ln Lyotard's
sense, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and Karen Mac Cormack are pagan poets

phrasing outside the limits of regimens favored by logic, linguistics, Aristotelian poetics, structuralist poetics (among other formalisms), and most philosophies of language, not to mention current critical methods and numerous poetical schools, with their suspicion of opaque language. Writing is, as
Lyotard says,uneffiired'enchainementdephrasesthatleavesusopentocomplexity. lt is the opposite ofsuch phrasings as calculative reasoning or representational thinking, which are, in contrast to paganism, redeemed beforehand by
their formal procedures, which simply give us what we want-framing rules,
connecting ends and means, constructing models, forming concepts, putting
things in their proper places, producing narratives (D, 68-69). Pagans love
category mistakes, or in other words are satirical with respect to forms of correctness.

Lyotard,s application in our present context lies in his conception of the


pure negative freedom of phrasing: "To link is necessary, but how to link is

Here is a portion of Karen Mac Cormack's "Sleep ls Incurable in Our Life-

time":

noc,(o,66).Alinkisagapbetweenphrases,whichwefillwilly-nillywith

Serenity is unpopular, it distracts from the major ambushes

the
many things, including passage phrases, but without being able to close

ofexterior concerns. Never

gap. ForexamPle:

of white gauze, its disposal after first time use. Then there

(and
The phrase that expresses the passage operator employs the conjun ction ond
term
of
one
apposition
the
soforth,andsoon). This term signals a simple addition,
with another, nothing more. Auerbach (1946: ch. z and 3) turns this into a characof "modern" sq'le, paratax, as opposed to classical syntax' Conjoined by

teristic

ond, phrases or events

follow each other, but their succession does not obey a cat-

loined to the preceding one by


egorical order(because;if,then;inorderto;although
it. Paratax thus connotes the
up
with
ond, a phrase arises out ofnothingness to link
it stresses the surprise that
and
phrases,
abyss of Not-Being which opens between
. . .).

alsomething begins when what is said is said. And is the conjunction that most
defring
while
threaten,
to
of
time
lows the constitutive discontinuity (or oblivion)
it through its equally constitutive continuity (or retention). . ' . lnstead ofand, and
(D, 66)
assuring the same paratactic function, there can be a comma, or nothing.

paratax: the phrase of modernism. This is a crucial paragraph, if paragraph


not
is the word, because it describes Lyotard's own poetics, which is to write,
"discus"lessons,"
"rudiments,"
"sketches,"
books, but "notes," "fragments,"
sions,,-these are the terms he applies to his writings (D, xiv-xv). The point
segmental
is to avoid "big talk." The structure of TheDifferentt, for cxatttplc, is

a bugle boy. The

manufacture

was the birthdaywe went to tattoo you. A flesh wound.

Deemed eligible, the bank account provides a sense of style


(so might a fedora in turbulence). lt's become more
six months ago I referred to another sequence

than

ofdaring.

Do men blink more often than women? Certain reflexes


seem to count as memory in nerve, muscle and example:
the cat looks up to

drawing of its counterpart losing

feathers. A title doesn't confer talent conveyed. Calvados

from

snifter late into what they also knew last century.

First sip. Not implant but tenacious hamstrings. Complaint

of content-its lack thereof or from. An elegant suppleness


should be consumed relativelyyoung. Orgasms aren't
oblique on the morning o[, or in the night. Sex is precision.
"No local passengers carried between stations marked A".
It's froth on the inside that's dangerous. Whist, the silent
artl ganre l. . . l The
tlc;rrl rlon't borrow lrorrr rrs,rs wt.rlo lr<lnr them. How
<

79
different is brooch from broach. The cat rolls on
flowers but doesn't crush the print, as in cotton, not description
ofthe auto-erotic. ln that chair this conversation,

utilizable not employable table. How tender in twelve?


Supplant this with the word terse, or focus on all the
visible points simultaneously. Light doesn't blister itself
but the epidermis becomes disorganised. Pallor, sometimes
misconstrued as a manifestation of missing (QD, t8).

verses: not consecutively, but by linking them with verses from other (some-

times distant) parts of the Bible, finding echoes in words and even parts of
words. So reading becomes itself uneaffaired'enchqtnementdephrases, reweaving
texts into new networks ofphrasing. "An elegant suppleness should be consumed relatively young": such consumption could apply here equally well to
cognac or to sex, although if so the line is apt to make an old man scowl. I'm
sure Mac Cormack didn't have this reading in mind. Hermeneutics says that
the rule of reading to be followed is that of charity, or the invention of truth

conditions-reading does not decipher but improvises supporting languages


This poem continues for another several sentences before breaking off-Mac
Cormack's poems stop but do not end. Like Dr. O'Connor's monologues, each
of her poems is cumulative rather than conclusive and could still be unfolding
somewhere in a parallel universe. What is compelling about "Sleep ls Incurable in Our Lifetime" are the subtle, fragmentary interactions between one
phrase and another. There is a kind of echo principle at work, not so much at
the level ofsound (but by all means keep your ears open) as at the level ofreference, perception, and concept: phrasing here is a kind of thinking (without
criteria)-thinking that proceeds by the proliferation of phrases rather than
by some linear principle of internal necessity (phrases do not add up to statements, except under severe coercion). I'm not sure why serenity is unpopular,

but I know serene people are less shaken by "ambushes ofexterior concerns"
than I am, and maybe serenity is just another form of superciliousness' Coincidentally just the other day I was listening to the Andrews Sisters sing their
great World War II hit, "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy [of Company B]." A bugle
boy is certainly a source of external ambushes, as, for example, at 5:oo a.m.
Meanwhile bandages made of gauze had bexer be discarded "after first time
use." Amateur tattoo artists are apt to cause "flesh wounds" requiring, and so
forth. "Do men blink more than women?" ltdepends onwho we think is more
reflexive in "nerve, muscle and example." Talent trumps pedigree, except in
the hierarchies of academic life. "First sip" is of "Calvados [a splendid cognac]
from a snifter late." "Orgasms aren't oblique" because "sex is precision." "Sex
is precision" is at once erotic counsel, an elegant piece of graffiti, and a philosophical theory. "Not implant but tenacious hamstrings" may be for all I know
source of sexual precision. A tenacious hamstring sounds erotic to me. lmplants are for the young.
Players only love you when they're playing: a traditional hermeneuticalway
to respond to pagan poetry is to appropriate a phrase rather than to try to deci-

pher its

intention-this

means that one makes the phrase one's own by taking

it now this way, now that, the way the ancient rabbis trsctl to rcad scriptural

(or contexts) that enables the phrase in question to come out true. For some
phrases this is easy: "Whist, the silent card game," fulfills the conditions of
a true statement for the same reasons that "Chess, the silent board game,"

would. Likewise "The dead don't borrow from us as we do from them": anapercu worthy of TheTstler. "'No local passengers carried between stations marked
A"' is true just as a rule is true ifenforced and obeyed; anyhow the phrase is a
citation, which technically cannot be false ("British intelligence reported that
' lraq has weapons of mass destruction"' is a true statement about false intelIigence, and also, therefore, a classic piece ofofficial rhetoric).
But Mac Cormack eludes even the most charitable hermeneutics. Most of
her phrases play with truth conditions, multiplying rather than just fulfilling
them: "Light doesn't blister itself but the epidermis becomes disorganised.
Pallor, sometimes misconstrued as a manifestation of missing." My counsel
is to construe these sentences lightly, keeping to one's breast thoughts of
sunburn and anemia, allowing the phrases to percolate their nuances, since
the superformation of nuances is pretty much the poetics at work here. Appropriation, after all, is a form of regimentation, settling what is mobile into
place-an execution of nuances in both the formal and the lethal sense. As
Lyotard says (in a section of The Differend devoted interestingly to Gertrude
Stein's phrases), "A phrase is not mysterious, it is clear. It says what it means to
say. No 'subject' receives it in order to interpret it. lust as no 'subject' makes it
(in order to say something). It calls forth its addressor and addressee, and they
come to take their places in its universe" Q,AZ).This is good anthropological
.rdvice: the idea is to learn how to inhabit the milieu of this strange language
rrntil one feels at home-Clifford Geertz calls it "becoming real," feeling the
l)urpose and pleasure ofthe Balinese cockfight, no longer having to justi$ it.
l'xplanations have to come to an end somewhere. The point is to change onesclIso as to experience the thing as it is. And if you keep changing, so will the
pocnr. Think of reading as a practice of musical accompaniment.
l)agan poctry is lrcr;rrcrrtly tlrc work of great comic writers, owing perhaps

80
to the anarchy of it unregimented phrases are usually (and unusually) funny:
.,Furniture isn't everything. Did Eve enjoy the first orgasmZ Accompaniment
/
ends in isolation from the event. Then / dovetail. Percussion in the anteroom
to conger the doctors" (QD, rS). Conger? Conger is a species of eel. Congeries
are aggregates ofheterogeneous elements, so "conger" used as a verb would
mean "to gather together." But one can also imagine percussion in the anteroom conjuring doctors-conceivably a more efflcient way of getting to see
them than we Presently have. "A bale of direct contraries" (QD, t5)'
Which is most interesting. From tricycle to try sexual. (QD, zE)
(Could someone be quadrisexual? Perhaps a quadropedophile')
lnheritance is the cleaning process our forebears foreswore,
occupied as they were, in each other's esteem. Not that
society is polite, it is rude to those who don't agree with
its particular modes of savagery. I don't wear pearls. All

those articles of torture. A man once slept in a room with


a cow's skull suspended by transparent fishing line above
the mattress on the floor. Hopefully height is not crucial as
I don'twant to lie. There's the biography minus the kittens.
Why was the amethyst

thought to prevent intoxication? (QD, eZ)

confining someone who speaks without pause. (Let us recall Hitler's terriblc
monologues. And every head of state participates in the same dictare, the repetition of an imperious monologue, when he enjoys the power of being the
only one to speak and, rejoicing in the possession of his high solitary word,
imposes it without restraint as a superior and supreme speech upon others)"
(lC, lil.One wonders what Blanchot would make of Dr. O'Connor's monologues, those oratorios of purple gusto: "but the interruption was quite useless. Once the doctor had his audience-and he got his audience by the simple
device of pronouncing at the top of his voice (at such moments as irritable and
possessive as a maddened woman's) some of the more boggish and biting of
the shorter early Saxon verbs-nothing could stop him" (Nrghtwo od, t4).
Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes have distinctive voices. Karen Mac Cormack is polyvocal, ranging from an avocal or neutral voice in which "no one
speaks" to complex heterophonies culled from the histories of languages,
the writings of ancestors, as well as the idiomatic expressions of old and new
forms of popular culture.
At the avocal boundary, Quirks and Quillers (r99r)-tricks and quibbles, quirks
of fate and howwe evade them-is made of forty "sentences," each one oc-

cupying its own page (so that an experience ofwhite space is part of the experience ofthe poem):
The untried decibeI of seamless hose

Reconstruct the spiral stare. (QD,

:g)

unhurried sentence its adjectives the chosen

Who invented the first commercial weed killer? (QD, 53)

Of course, in a certain sense it is a distortion to cite these lines out of their


contexts, for doing so subverts their resistance to interpretation, because in
context each phrase works as an interruPtion (a shift from one context or register to another)-"Who invented the first commercialweed killer?" is, all by
itsel[ without complication, but as situated it pops like a gun:
An aberration in the earth's crust,

for

example. Who invented the first commercial weed killer?


Recitals. Written in front ofyou not as

now lift it. (Qo,

door but a latch,

Sa)

lnterruption: we tend to be bothered by interruptions, but they are crucial


to sociability, as is brevity, which interruption makes possible. Recall Maurice Blanchot on the absence of interruptions: "l wonder if we have reflected enough upon the various significations of this pause that alone permits
speech to be constituted as conversation, and even as sllccclt. We end up by

ladder geological manoeuvre or landing

strip spangles the same man connected


poillenes cramp

the page's reproduction not

ours or the level's pinafore before piano

trudgingwords ahead of their names an


algebra ofwhat is scene momentous
underneath. (QQ,9)
Here the challenge would be to know how to read this poem aloud-where
(or whether) to introduce pauses that would shape the sentence rhythmically

iFnot semantically. (Karen Mac Cormack reads the pieces in this volume fairly
rapidly in a cadence that avoids any hint of prosody: no pausing for emphases, so the poem ceases

to be made of lines.)+The semantics of this particular


"sentence" lies in "its adjectives" ("trudging words ahead of their names" like
"seamless hose," "unhurried sentence," "geological manoeuvre," "landing

strip," "the same man," "connected

poillettes"). The poem contains only one


trarrsitive verb, "cranrp," an<l possibly not even that, since a "cramp" is more

82

B3

often felt as a noun. ("Scene," to be sure, implies "seen.") ln truth Quirksand


Quillets is not, strictly speaking, made of sentences, but of proliferations of
phrases within loose, unPunctuated periods. Proliferation here is an event of
complexity, an anarchic defeat of unity, structure, closure, and point (but not,

speare

curiously, ofan internal play):


Foregoing impartial likeness threads drop
where the thermometer left off it only

proliferation of exits

is

grief enough arms in

these leaves drying an open solitude in

increments the belief that there's paint on walls


paintings patching anomalies or
marbles in the mouth a fast-growing
background attention span in the form

of

everyday objects of a giving culture basting


corrects this sink is full. (QQ, +Z)

is

still occasionally cited

play, which is what Lyotard means by phrasing or enchainment. What Karen


citing (and rephrasing) texts from
both past and present.
Mac cormack does is alter the field of play by

Recall the concept of poetic diction. This was, in the eighteenth century, a

circle drawn around our vocabulary that excluded certain words as flatly unpoetic: duck, toe, fart, potato, intestine-make your own list. Modernism did

not reject the idea of poetic diction, but it enlarged the circle so that its center would be everywhere and its circumference inaccessible: hence "etherized
upon a table." The purpose of much of Karen Mac Cormack,s recent work has
been to develop new forms of poetic diction out of found texts. In Fitto print
in collaboration with Alan Halsey, the found texts are newspaper items-news stories, advertisements, notices, but also forms of layout
that makes the page the basic unit ofverse:
(1998), written

EMANCI-PATIO

likeness," "threads drop where the thermometer left off," "it only matters to
someone else that the door is closed upon leaving," "for now the proliferation
ofexits is griefenough," "arms in these leaves [read it as a verb] dryingan open

roots dangler lowdown


drawbackcocksure

tic ingredients that go into sentences-the readym ade enchainements that make
possible everyday speech (about "everyday objects of a given culture"). The
phrases ofQuirks ond Quillets are not poetical, but they are tricky and evasive (no
pinningthem down). The point is thateach one (almosteach one) is recogniz-

After all, where do phrases come from? From our various discursive environments, which Karen Mac Cormack seeks to reconstruct and explore by
investigating several centuries of linguistic usage as well as the idioms of
contemporary popular culture. Her poetry is, among other things, an archaeology of language, as the title of Quirk and Quillets suggests-it takes a good
deal of searching among dictionaries to find the word quillet: thanks to Shake-

upstart

live

oral stroller

solitude in increments," "the belief that there's paint on walls," "paintings


patching anomalies," "marbles in the mouth," "a fast-growing background,"
"attention span in the form of everyday objects of a giving culture," "basting
corrects [dehydration]," "this sink is full." The poem appropriates the seman-

have used.

point is that phrases,


are not products or

are found objecrs. They

creations-they cannot be traced back to an origin. phrases are, in Heidegger's


lingo, "at hand": they have an equipmental rather than objective mode of
being-that is, we don't hold them up for inspection but rather put them into

Notice that the phrases here all make a kind of sense-"Foregoing impartial

able: these are phrases that, but for a tr,vist here and there, we ourselves might

as an archaism. The

whether contemporary or archaic,

matters to someone else that the door is


closed upon leaving for now the

it

fermi down and roar

to-die-for
recovery in times of duress

aggregates anoint conundrum

loans abstrusity

balanced marshiest oasis

hard-to-get comparison

outsourcing deliverables

as

virtual courseware

to encash outdo

sharpshooter's clone
estop "Hurricane buys site"

day-to-day tread

now inhale finalize

greetings uncouple prefer (Fp, 35)

if a mistake could "improve"

subject crop weedy

footnote explains that the title of this poem was originally a typo in the Toronto Globe E Msil, and that "Hurricane buys site" was a "headline for a Globe E
Moilarticle statingthat Hurricane Hydrocarbons Ltd. wins right to become maA

jor oiI producer in Kazakhstan in 1996" (Fp, 6r). Likewise Mac cormack'sArlssue
(zoor) is, she says, "a series of poems most of which (but not all) utilize the
vocabulary and spelling found in magazines of a diverse nature,,-Vogue, for
t'xample, and others even more strictly "geared to

female readership,, (AI, 9):

84

j.

85

r rt,,,i.i

AT ISSUE

communities. Certainly one can make fun of the idiom of Vogue and Sel,/i but
the appropriation of these idioms is also a form of redemption, because now
one experiences their peculiar comedy, richness, and even utopian potential.
lohn Cage perfected the form ofthe found text after having invented the
mesostic by "writing through" modernist texts like loyce's FinnegansWake, using
loyce's name as the spine along which his (loyce's) text is reassembled:

III

that
Putting shaPe into getting without Perfect in a culture
of
rate
face
doesn't think, pumPs up, the two traits go at the
themselves, cropped by impasse, express your monochromatics
surface'
from within, discover it blushes, reduce the signs to

face extrasharing space in a new high-tech fabric, the pale


filling out
prevent every day year after year, retreat returns by

wroth with twone nathandJoe

sways'
advance notice, since seeing is oxygen more supple'
rattles
stable
big'
are
take graceful, tilt feature-controls

Malt

iust
a story'
accept different speeds sing, sprawl-moguls seized
turned'
raking in celebrity, heat-activated genre, hands full

jhEm
Shen

loops removable gusseted, postpone television' revelations'

pftlschute

cross-over
introspection, an assemblage not incidentally imposed'

sOlid man

(Al' r7)'
success, so many boxesyet smashes toward toward ' ' '

that the humptYhillhead of humself


is at the

Twopoints:Theexhibitionoffoundtextsisaformofsatire-thephrasesof

knoCkout
in thE Parks

thetextarejumbledinawaythatexposes(andsodefeats)theirrhetoricalpurfrom within")' At Issue is' among other


pose ("expres, you,
^ono.hrorn.ti.t
from publications
iningi, ,n urr"y on cultural narcissism (culling its language

interesting' By appropriating
like lelfl. But perhaps the formal point is more
Karen Mac Cormack accomher volabulary and spelling from found texts'
she
things: in the spirit of modernism'
plishes two (paradoxically clmpeting)
-to
include the language of everyday life
enlarges the field of poetic diction
same t'T:'
(whatever its virtues or comedy). However, at the
lrr:ltjL'llt
such writing communities
traditional poetic diction 1rt *Li as in the spirit of
Cage and lackson Mac Low) she
as oulipo oi the "chanc" op"r.tions" oflohn
(no phrases allowed
subjects her writing to a system of arbitrary constraint
or found language is a pothai don't apPear in Selfl. Recourse to source texts
language (or linguistic
etics that subjects the writing subject to an objective
openness of chance with the
field). lt is a poetics of finitudl thaicornbines the
what has not' in some sense'
confrnement of originary stipulations: no saying
citations taking
already been said, but doingso without repetition-imagine
to find a new
be
to
seems
the form not of quotationiut of collage' The idea

"t

than romantic because it is a


form of originality, one that is more rhetorical
been written
and recomposes what has already

form of writing that interrupts


language is not internal
and not a form of creation ex nihilo' As I said earlier'
phrases capable of open-ended
to the writing subject but is an environment of
are local rather
redistributions. The crucial point is that these environments

thanglobal:onewritesfromtheStandpointofinhabit;rti<lrlwithindiscursive

Writing

found texts is, as Cage argued, a way of escaping the confinements of subjectivity, in which confinement means repetition, self-imitation,
the articulations of style, identity, and tradition, and where escape means
bringing oneself arbitrarily under the discipline of the environment of another's language in which one is (anthropologically) free to explore, expand,
and rearrange. Here the transfer of composition is from a Chomskyan linguistic competence, in which the subject is able to produce an infinite number of
original sentences from the deep structure of linguistic rules, to the pragmatic
discourse that appropriates and renews what is given in the discourse that
constitutes a social and culturalworld. A poetics ofthe lively surface of historical particulars in this event replaces a structuralist poetics ofinnate rules and
conventions that mechanically reproduce a history of universal forms.
through

Found texts are archaeological artifacts. Mac Cormack didn't find her texts

exploration of her ancestry, which evidently


goes back to Elizabethan times (when the word "implexure," meaning fold or
folding, was still, if only rarely, in use). The poem is in part a series of "historical letters" made of heterogeneous voices from many sources and periods"To absorb a history of family through the centuries requires a forebear's attention to facts and no fear of paper" (lM, ro). The voices (and years) cannot
always (and never easily) be identified or distinguished from one another"'l-anguage as primary environment' applied to re-reading letters (one's own
,rrrrl others') the rlccrrlt's itrtcrlcavcd on every surface to blur and redefine the
by accident. lmplexures (zoo3) is an

86

87

living in & perception's architecture" (lM, 44'45)-except perhaps for the

as a

(italicized) letters home from a modern youngwoman traveling to places Iike


Mexico, ltaly, Greece, and TurkeY:
t enjoy travelingsolo.There

are

problems,butthey are notinsurmountable.Theltqlian and 6reek

men are totally perplexed by single women going around the world E
there are so many.

it

seems to unnewe them

that

(lM, si)

But mostly the language is incremental in its phrasing, as if a collage (or per-

haps "implexions": entanglements, interweavings, interfolds) were being


constructed fro m ancestral fragments:
Form at certain taverns never documentary during their scramble. To the west
spell jeopardy and drop to [ower ground rasp's running with a lantern. Later
through the front door, down the hall and out again, coach, frills adhere to it'
Horn of boxwood and in existence a diary usua[[y is a provoking document. Hov-

phantom noun-a found word that eludes lexicography. (Karen Mac Cormack tells me the word means "jaunt," an aimless stroll.)

Speaking of dictionaries, one section of lmplexures is called "DEVELOPMENTAL DICIIONARY (from ry67 to circa r98z)." It is a text in two parts. part Two
consists ofwhat looks like a random series ofwords:
contiguity induction chimerical inimical didactic vicissitude pithy maxim aphorism portentously sedition sedulous irascible specious plausible esoteric contrite
intellect intellectuaI faculty usurp sagacious discernment artifice contrivance negate glaucous rapacious respite retrieve vituperative obsequious euphemism ascribe disparate acumen ingenuous expunge intrinsic tacit cogent denote acquisi-

tion peripatetic ebullient anomalous pullulating extraneous jejune hyperborean


abstruse incondite tantalum acronychal erudite tautophony (lM, 59)

Mostly familiar words, perhaps used less commonly than others-appearing,


I would guess, more often in writing than in speech. Some you'd not think to

ered very much to the fore and exasperating. Consentwithheld and why? Every record drawn a blank and so impossible to forgive her being a Perfect Lady. Drifting
coming on to the answering mountain made no picture. Into three editions and

use ("incondite tantalum acronychal"), and you'd want to consult a dictionary before deploying a number ofothers. And that appears to be the point of

many infidelities (the former begot missiles). An independent line . . . freedom of


outlook (not one but two bribes of peerage failed) and then the Repeal ofthe Salt
Tax. Meanwhile, diligent in her Latin and "very new-fangled of my ltalian," she
didn't object to his taking a sprogue now and then. A "nip" appeared in the pit
and he was then alone. Trappings beyond perennial drain, the dusk, in his chair,
but no marker or tablet, it being December what flowers could there have been?

words of the

(lM, t9)

Again: a portrait of a lady-but as in Gertrude Stein's portraits the subject here


is integrated into her environment, and so the collage is of a time and place
and not simply of a subject, meaning that the references are local and temporal, embedded in lost contexts, and thus outside the glossing capabilities of

modern readers-and most libraries, although industrial-strength research

will turn up some interesting connections: "sprogue," for example, is hard


to find anywhere except in FinnegansWake (5o7.t9: "A strangely striking part of
speech for the hottest worked word of ur sprogue."). Every dictionary I know
of rejects it. The context in Mac Cormack's Poem suggests that it could mean

"a drink now and then," but loyce's context makes it more likely a word for
language ("sprog" is Danish for language, so "ur sProgue" would be something
like Ursprache). "Sprogue" is also probably a loycean pun (sprog, brogue). Diligent polyglots won't mind a pun now and then, or a gJre and gimble in the
wabe, norwillspace Rogues (or "sprogues," as they call themselves). Sprogue
is a common surname, evidently originally Cornish, but it is tttort' itrtcrc'stittg

their appearance in lmplexures. Part One of "Developmental Dictionary" is a list


(three-and-a-half pages in length) of definitions, synonyms, or instances of
the words in PartTwo. So in reading one applies the following to the first five

series-

contact, proximity
prologue, introduction

production (offacts) to prove


general statement

offanciful conception
hostile
meant to instruct (lM, 56)

-and

these to the last five:

ill constructed, crude, unpolished


rare white metallic element

highly resistant to heat &


action ofacids
happening at nightfall
learndd

rcpetition of the same sound (1M,59)

"l)cvclopmental Dictionary" is an archaeological document-as is, when


orrc corrsidcrs it, any dictiorrary, cspecially one that supplies the meanings

of

B8

89

words with a history, allowing one to dig up old uses or to discover thatwords
are protean, owing to their multiple and heterogeneous etymologies: "induction" is not just one word but several, depending on the context. ln the

salPhonography, H.

Elizabethan theater, it means "prologue, introduction." It is also, of course,


a term of art in togic and the foundation of the empirical sciences' And it is
also how one gets into a Hall of Fame (or, worse luck, into the military). As a
good archaeologist, Karen Mac cormack gives us the Middle English meaning
of"specious" ("ofgood aPpearance" Ittvt, 56]), and in the bargain alludes to its

proximity to the nextword in the series, "plausible" ("seemingly reasonable or


probable" [f fvr, 5O]), which "specious" in our current use of the word must be:
be "spea baldly incoherent explanation, incredible from the start, would not
cious." Plausibility is a condition of deception.
make
lust so, the words in PartTwo of "Developmental Dictionary" do not
morphemicalconnected-phonetically,
internally
up a random series but are
ly, semantically: "induction" is an instance of "contiguity"; "inimical" echoes

"chimerical," and so, more subtly, does "didactic" (the series is an example of
"tautophony"). Maxims are pithy, and so, being maxims, are aphorisms' "Obsequious,, is a reversal of "vituperative." And without doubt the series grows
more "abstruse" or "erudite" (recondite but by no means "incondite") as it
draws to a close. "Acronychal"-"happening at nightfall"-concerns the rising or setting of stars, as opposed to their rising or setting at sunrise (which is
,.cosmical,,). The )xfordEnglishDictionary'sentry is worth a moment ofyour time
be hard pressed to find the word anywhere else). while in the neighbor-

$ou,ll

hood, consult "acroPhonY. "


poetry as an archaeology of [anguage brings new life to the now tired con,,open
form." The idea is to recover and explore different linguistic encept of

vironments, whether ancient or modern, high or low, lost or forgotten. Let


me conclude by citing Voniry

R elease

(zoq),

in which Mac Cormack appropriates

'sourced'
a number of unique vocabularies. She begins with "a statement: re
poems in VANITY RELEASE":
I have become increasingly intrigued by tate rgth and early 2oth century shorthand dictionaries and manuals (and most recently a mid-zoth-century typewriting manual), in addition to phrase books for travelers through the zoth century.

ofword lists, sentences to learn by, and the exercises in these respective manuals reflect not only the ongoing changes in North American English for

The choice

this period, but also shifts in educational, business, and technological terminolpoogy. To engage with these terms in a context of contemporary investigational
etic practice is one way to perplex meaningfully what is so easily taken for granted
technologically, linguistically, and socially in our own tinrt's (Vl{' ';)

"UP," my favorite poem in the volume, takes its words and phrases from Uniyer-

M. Pernin O 1886, Sixth Edition, 1893. Phonography, literally sound-writing, is a form of stenography invented in 1837 by lsaac Pitman.
"UP" begins:
Phonography dispenses with useless letters by recording the sounds ofwords only.
In practiceyou should endeavor to forgetthe ordinary spellingofwords, and

think

only of the sounds of which they are composed. Remember always to write whot
youhear and notwhatyousee. Accuracy is the first essential. . . . "Make haste slowly."
Sz sh

zh, j ch, are horizontal curves traced from left to the manner indicated on

page 36 facing the right. The sound

ofx

is a

combination ofthe sounds k s

Get the doctor a cup ofblack tea, Harry feared the boat would veer to the left. A red

leaffell at the foot ofthe oak.

(VR, 3r)

The first "stanza" gives us the basic rule ofphonography, which is to forget the

phonetic alphabet and to replace it with minor strokes of the pen or pencil, as
indicated in "stanza" two: the sounds "sh" and "zh" are written as curves like
the lower right quarter of a new moon. The first sentence of the third stanza
would be written as follows:

l(rf

_lr/,

\,1'r _l.

However, what matters in Mac Cormack's archaeology is not simply the recovery of the forgotten text but the recuperation of its peculiar

idiom-namely,

the pedagogical sound ofthe late-nineteenth-century office manual:


The majority of business houses prefer their correspondence rypewritten,

it

be-

ing not only more tegible than ordinary longhand, but also much more rapidly
executed. Comparatively few people are really good spellers, a fact due in a great
measure to the absurd construction ofthe language and partly to early neglect of
this important branch ofeducation. The stenographer who would keep abreast of
the times should also be acquainted with the shorthand literature in general. The
word ushas been inadvertently omitted from theLord's Prayer. (VR, 36)

The "absurd construction ofthe language" indeed. It turns out that what Karen Mac Cormack's poetic research recovers from these manuals is the struggle

between the rationalization of the world, the programs of efficiency, control,


and split-second reproduction on which our modernity depends, and the essential paganism of language-the sheer excess and unmanageability of a
language not really made for literacy, legibility, or the various technologies
of'word-processing. Thc. attempt to streamline human speech, including the

90
manufacture of buzz words, acronyms, sound bites, not to mention email and
who knows how many new forms of digital shorthand, fails because, asVanity
Release shows, streamlining produces its own special forms of comic materiality, as in the penultimate poem inVonityRelesse,"WE-23."4 The source-text

for this poem is a ryPing manual, GenerolTyping, t9r Series @ 1965 by the
McGraw-Hill Company of Canada, Ltd., filled with finger exercises, helpful
hints, moraI encouragement, cautionary notes, and useful examples for the
eager secretary.
BODY centered

opposite the J key, a hand-span from the machine

She fed us egg salads. Ed fed us eggs.


Fred sells red jugs; red jars are free.

Ask Dr. Grass. Dr. Grass leads us all.

THE ROGUE POET'S


RETURN

This book has many "clinics."


area dear drag flu gush

gulfhire huge

idea jugs lark kill read selfside drug


Errors should not alarm

you; insteod, they

should guide you.

Control Hyphen, Q, and ? keys


Can you keep your elbows still?

olt

iohn

sofa soap sock soak son sod sox sow


side

matthiasts
. . . which

-Boswell,
Watch

anecdotes

word, by the way, Johnson always condemned.

ofthe center

STRESS:

poetic

Lrfe of

)ohnson

Continuity

for it. Get set. (VR, at)

The poem continues for several pages, concluding with what is surely the
twentieth century's most important advice: "REMEMBER: Don't give in to the
temptation to look upl" (VR, SZ).

l'I

start by citing one of lohn Matthias's earliest poetic anecdotes, "Alexander

Kerensky at Stanford," from Turns (r975):


He rose one Winter

from his books

To sit among the young unrecognized.

Itwas 1963. ltwas

1917.

He sipped his coffee & was quite anonymous.

Students sat around him at their union

Talking potitics: Berkeley, Mississippi.


A

sun-tanned blonde whose wealthy father

Gave her all his looks and half his money

Whispered to her sun-tanned lover:


"Where

ltt

is

VietNanr?"

92

:1 ir i) ; il i'

thought no thought oftheirs.


ln his carrel atthe Hoover lnstitute
He

He had the urns of all his ancient enemies.


Their dust was splattered on his purple tie. (T, 57)'

Kerensky was the Russian prime minister in the Provisional Government


(luly-september rgrT) that ruled briefly after the czar's overthrow. when Lenin
i.rn" to po*.r in October Kerensky fled to Paris, then to NewYorkwhere he finally settled. He was a fellow at stanford University's Hoover lnstitute between

toward
rgOr and 1966 while lohn Matthias was at Stanford (1963-65) working
his M.A. in English.

93
Meanwhile, inThePound Era, figures like "patterned energy," introduced with
an anecdote about Buckminster Fuller on "knots" OCS-56), displace categories and distinctions; luminescent particulars do the work of universals, as
they do in Pound's poetry. ln fact, as Kenner once said to me,ThePoundEro isa
workof literary history modeled on The Cantos,"a poem including history," but
including it chiefly in the form of synecdoches gathered from below:
So this is (we may take it) Mitteleuropa:

Mr Corles was in command of machine guns

butwhen the time came to fire


he merely
a

lit

a cigarette and

walked away from his battery and seated himself in

field,

About this same rime $96z-6$ I was at the University of Virginia studying
with Hugh Kenner, whose books on Pound, Eliot, loyce, and Beckett gave us
our first detailed examination of modernism-this against the background
of the New Critics who found these writers, even Eliot (whose critical writ-

So some subaltern gave the order to

recall
ings they substantially appropriated), mostly unreadable. what I chiefly
and
ems
(without
sentences
complete
in
abtut Kenner was his ability to speak
lnvited
citation.
lengthy
ahs), each of which was apt to contain (verbatim) a
he
he would not recite from a prepared text but would compose as

and he was therefore sent to a mind sanatorium.a

to lecture,
closely
spoke, then later write up a text for publication that matched pretry
to
Bible
the
committed
have
to
said
is
what he had said extempore.' Milton
includread,
he
of
what
memory. Kenner did pretty much the same with most
ing, if you can believe it, much of Pound's contos. A corollary of his fabulous
memory is that Kenner cultivated a Baconian disdain for general ideas; conas
cepts and theories turned his face into a death mask. ("Clich6s of theory,"
masterhis
that
no
wonder
is
Matthias says in "Private Poem" [sM, 136].) lt
work, The Pound Era, is essentially a book of anecdotes-it begins with an acresidcount of a chance meeting between Henry lames and Ezra Pound' then
r9o8:
ing in London, sometime around
than had
The Chelsea street that afternoon however had stranger riches to offer
grazing
houselight
motors;
of
sPutter
hooves,
of
clatter
"society." Movement,
Ezra Pound
faces:
two
apparition:
their
a
crowd,
in
faces
moving;
fronts, shadows
(quickjauntyrubicundity)withalady.Eyesmet;thecoupleshalted;ritualswereinto
cumbent. Around them Chelsea sauntered on its leisurely business. lames Play:
.,Mr.
and
labyrinths;
unimagined
for
torch
searchingvoice,
in
his
.
.
.,,
Pound!
prePound
Mr'
whereupon
Margaret;
his
niece
of
effect
on, to the
Presenting
ne
sented to Mr. Iames his wife Dorothy; and the painter's eye of Dorothy Pound,
"A lairly portly
Henry
phrased
it,
larlcs.
have
would
"took
in"
as
lames
shakespear,

figure"-:

fire

and Mr Corles did not suffer the extreme penalty


because his

family

was a very good bourgeois family in Vienna

What is an anecdote? The historian Lionel Cossman notes that we lack any
clear concept or definition of the anecdote, arguably one of the oldest forms

of narrative (recall the laconic Cain and Abel story), but one that only came
under theoreticaI scrutiny in the early nineteenth century as a briefincidental tale that sometimes underwrites but also frequently undermines the grand
narratives of history as when Procopius supplements his laudatory history

of Emperor lustinian's wars with anecdota ("secrets," or "unpublished tales")


about .lustinian's private life, especially the extravagant sexual appetites of
his wife, Theodora.s Just so, sex and the anecdote are traveling companions:

both belong to the nether regions of gossip and jokes-although according


to P6ter Hajdu anecdotes also (as in nineteenth-century Hungary, forexample)
function as a medium of "national consciousness."6 Both Matthias and Pound
capture the form's essential mischief, but also its classical decorum-the impersonality ofits narration and its Aristotelian structure ofexposition, crisis,

and resolution. So here, in Matthias's poem, is the old democrat, Kerensky,


half a century after his moment in history, anonymously (anomalously) sipping his coffee among Stanford's students (hedonists turning into dissidents
and back again), then repairing, as if to a time machine, to his carrel at the
Hoover lnstitute, with its vast archive of dusty Russian documents. An anecdote of survival, as is Pound's, which is also a kind of anti-Msuberly in its story
ol'a separate peace.
Anecdotes arc historical, but, being local and particular, they stand at the

95

94
intersection of history and memory; or perhaps one should say that the anecdote is a certain way of relating (to) history with the immediacy of memory. lt
could be that "proximity" is the word I'm looking for, but proximity to what?
Matthias's poems are sometimes anecdotal memories, but what truly makes a
memory anecdotal, its basic condition of possibiliry, is the presence of a certain kind of proper name-7

Caily, daily, in Vitebsk,


Cows & horses danced in the air.

Superstructure he hopelessly
Muddled with structure.
Gaily, daily, in Vitebsk,
Cows & horses danced in the air.

First time I saw

him, Segovia,
he

wouldn't play.

Now he probably

Commissar for the arts for

year .

But was dismissed: The Man

Leaping Over the City.

can't.
ln from the wings,
holding the

thing like a chalice,


as

After October, Chagall was

if it might spill,
the music, out,

before he playedyou weren't supposed

to breathe.
Maybe he only noticed

somebody blink ("Tunes for Iohn Garvic" [T, tt])


The name Segovia belongs to the history of music, but, except in passing (making room for the odd eye- or ear-witness), official histories of music are not

usually anecdotal.s One question is how, when, or why events of history or


memory take (or are given) the form of anecdotes, as against that of extended
narratives or, conversely, of fragments, vignettes, or montage. One answer

Daily, daily, in Vitebsk,


lcons ofLenin & Stalin objectivety stare. (T, 56)

This poem, as the notes to Turns indicate, is the third in a sequence derived
or devolved from Matthias's reading of Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Stqtion,
which is a sort of anecdotal history of revolutionist thought, or more exactly a

book of stories about revolutionaries from Michelet and Marx to Trotsky and
Lenin-the subtitle of Wilson's book is A Study intheWriting and Acting of History,
which is to say that the question for Wilson is not so much "What did Lenin
think or do?" as "What was it like to be Lenin (disembarking, for example, at
the Finland Station), and thus to think and act like him?"'o Or, as per Matthias's "Bakunin in ltaly," which (anecdotally) crosses the history of revolutionaries with that of music:
Wagner's face is still illuminated
Over Dresden in that fire I fed
And in the glow of it I see my sister

Walking through the snow beside Turgenev.

is that mischief must be quick, as Matthias is quick in his skewering of Segovia (lohn Cage would have loved this poem). Anecdotes are a species of devilry with respect to whatever is worthy, serious, or officially above reproach.s
The poem on the page facing "Alexander Kerensky at Stanford," for example,
is a paratactic anecdote in which an artist aPpears momentarily in the public

A mason. Castrati sing

realm (as Kerensky, the public man, had reemerged in the private):

And dance the choreography oFKarl Man.

A PAINTER

Did I spit my teeth out in the Peter-Paul


Only to release the homicidal genius
OfNachaev?

should have been a lesuit,

should have been

the Internationale

tenor playing

Marc Chagall knew nothing

Sophie Hatsfeldt in an opdra-bouffe

About dialectics.

lly Ferdinand l.:rss;rlt'. (I, 54)

97

96
No doubt the glossing of proper names is a necessary if insufficient way of
readingan anecdotal poem (cf. Terrell'sACompaniontoTheCantosof EzraPound,
cited above). During the May r84g "Uprising in Dresden" the anarchist Mikhail
Bakunin (r8r4-76) manned the barricades with Richard wagner $es, that Richard Wagner: a leftist in real life, did you know that?), and later he lost his teeth

while imprisoned in the Fortress of Peter and Paul in St. Petersburg-actually,


it was the Castle of Shlisselberg near St. Petersburg that claimed his teeth. Ba-

by the army "G.B." and the world's


Rep. Robert L.

F.

population is estimated at around 3-4 billion.

Sikes, D-Fla, said he thinks the U.S. is not doing enough in the

field. Sikes said it is estimated that the Russians have "seven to eight times" the
capability of the United States. The U.S. has enough "G. B." to kill the world's
estimated population about 3o times. Russia, on the other hand, has enough to
kill the world's estimated population, say, 16o to r9o times. (T, z9)
U.P.l.: for United Press International. Karl Kraus (187r-1936) was the famous

kunin admired, perhaps loved, but then condemned the young agitator Sergei
Nachaev Q8a7_76), for whom yiolent revolution was a good in itself. Bakunin
was against violence, and thus a critic of Marx-hence the joke about Marxist

Austrian satiristwhose periodical,

castrati. Meanwhile Sophie von Hatzfeldt (r8o5-8r) was a German aristocrat


("the red countess") whose opdra-boffi divorce was handled by the socialist
Ferdinand Lassalle $825-46), who founded the first German workers' pargr,

said of Kraus, "probing between syllables, digs out the larvae that nest there in

the Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein.


ln his bibliographicalnote to Turns Matthias indicates that he is (like Pound)

Die Fackel(The

Torch), was the vehicle for hi-

larious attacks on the banality ofViennese social life-in particular the fatuity
and hypocrisy of its public discourse (Rede). "This quibblea" Walter Benjamin
clumps. The larvae of venality and garrulity, ignominy and bonhomie, childishness and covetousness, gluttony and dishonesty."l'?Among other things.
Karl Kraus wrote: "You can expect no word of my own from me." Kraus's
rogue method of citation and parody is a source or model of Matthias's attrac-

basically a documentary poet-one who writes things down instead of think-

tion to "quotation, commentary, pastiche" (C, 8r), or what Matthias would

ing them up:

later call "cuttings," as in "A Civil Servant," a Pakistani hangman's tale lifted

plundered various sources as indicated below (r) to get my general bearings


in the course of a composition or (z) for passages and fragments which provide
documentary material in which Poetic enerry can be isolated so as to expand the
voicing of particular parts of this book-sometimes quoting, sometimes translating or transmuting them (videTurns). A poet's random, pretty unscholarly (though
I have

sometimes purposeful) reading over certain Periods of time when engaged in assembling certain kinds of structures' (T, ro9)"

verbatim (so a note tells us) from the Times of London:


Because the Muslims and the Hindus

do this job, they turn to


a

poor, impoverished Christian. They pay me

ten rupees each time, some fifty pence.


And look at

this-one

mud room, two beds,

.,Poetry
can only be made out of other poems; novels out of
Northrop Frye:
other novels,, (Anatomy,gT). This seems right, but Matthias operates within a
larger system-for example, a library (close to the one imagined by Borges)
whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is indeterminate, recalling again Williams's motto that "A poem can be made of anything," even

a Pepsi calendar, a Coca-Cola

newspaper clippings

couldn't find

(1,

7o):

cannot

me-

poster and the crucifix. My father, an


untouchable, cleaned the toilets in Lahore
and then converted. The British brought in

hangingwith the cricket, but they


a

hangman. My father volunteered.

He'd rather hang a man than clean latrines.


THREE LOVE SONCS FOR U.P.I.

They never tell me whom I'm going to hang.

(i.m.RarlKraus)

They come and get me, or they send me

r. The ArmyTold Congressmen


The army told congressmen yesterday it has enough of

money for the bus or train. l'm the only


a

single nerve gas in its

chemical biologicatwarfare arsenal to kill the world's population many times


over. But Russia, one lawmaker rePorted, may harbor an even more lethal
capabitity in this little discussed and highly secret ftel<l. l hc \rrl)sllrrcc is Iabcled

hangman in the country; I'm on call.


They got me up at2 A.M. for Bhutto.

rrining, and they brorrght him on

Itwas

98

ii.:i,i

!:

99

t: /

stretcher. He wore the shalmar-kameez


and traditional long shirt. He was steady
as I fastened up the hood around his head

and then put round the noose. He

didn't

border, the outlying region beyond the control of administrative centers).r+


Writing, Blanchot says, is ddpaysement, "a habitless inhabiting" (lC, 3o8). Matthias is famously unsettled, aboard ship, following ancient and modern itineraries across layered or legend-laden landscapes, as in Bathory and Lermontov
(r98o) and in much of AGatheringofWcys (r99r).'s But the point here is that the

say a word before I Pulled the lever,


but somehow lwas certain he was innocent.

voices ofpoetry and anecdote singa kind ofduet upon the same contrary, cen-

I went home and drank all night and drank

Seurat"-blue unquotable monologues by Henry Miller, Laurence Durrell,

so much I woke uP in the wards

with

alcoholic poisoning. They came to get me


there to hang the officers who gave

sorable, underground plane, as in Matthias's "scherzo Trio: Three at the Villa

(zoo7):
POST.AN ECDOTAL

the evidence convicting Bhutto. They'd been

promised pardons butwere being hanged


instead. They repudiated all their evidence
before I hanged them, one

bY

one.

What kind of country is this anyway? l'm 65


l've been the hangman here since mY

father died. When they came to get me in the


I told them I was far too sick to go.

And then what? Then I thought

l'm Christian. So I went. (PIM, 34-35)

of

What I first remembered:

Underneath some porch with Gide:


Oh, not with Cide. But after years & years
I read

that he remembered what he first

Remembered, and it was that.

wards,

But this is Pakistan.

t6-tl); or, somewhat differently, the first poem in Kedging

and Anais Nin (PlM,

tl
Not this: Someone calling me,
lohnny,lohnny. I was angry hid.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (Benazir Bhutto's father) was president and later prime
minister of Pakistan during the rg7os. ln ry77 he was overthrown by a miliof
tary coup let by General Muhammad Zia-ul Haq. Bhutto was then accused
jail'
conspiring to assassinate a political rival and imprisoned in Rawalpindi
After a rigged trial and failed appeal, he was executed on April 4, 1979' There

That

is an account of the execution by the superintendent of Rawalpindi, Colonel


Rafl ud Din, entitled (in Urdu) Bhutto kay akhn 34 din ffhe Last3z3 Days of Mr'

That it hadn't killed. lohnny!

Bhutto;.': The executioner, whose name was Tara Masih, gives us an alternathe
tive version-an expos6 from below, up close and yet detached, including
of
execution
subsequent
of
the
Din,
ud
story, not mentioned by colonel Rafi
the
NewYorkTimes
the officers who had testified against Bhutto. on luly 8, rg8+,
ran the following obituary: "Tara Masih, the offlcial executioner who hanged
ousted Prime Minister ZulfikarAli Bhutto in r979 and an estimated 5,ooo other
people over 25 years, died Friday ofheart disease in Pakistan's northern city of
Lahore, jail officials said today'" Obituaries are a species of anecdote'
The French writer Maurice Blanchot championed the argument that Poetthe pagarr (from p0.gus: the
ry'svoice is thatof the alien, the exile, the misfit,

Itwas humid, summer, evening.


I

hid there sweating in the bushes

As the dark came

down. I could

Smell the DDT they'd sprayed

afternoon-it hung there in

The air. But so did the mosquitoes

Oh, l'd notgo backatall. I'd


Slammed the door on everyone. (K,

:)

What is Andr6 Gide doing in this poem? Possibly only to pose the question
of first or early memory: "Not this"-young Gide seems never to have been
angry-but that: a young boy hiding somewhere:
I

remember [Gide writes] a biggish table-the dining-room table, no

doubt-with

its table-cloth that reached nearly to the ground; I used to crawl underneath
the concierge's

little boy, who sometimes came to play with me.

"What are yorr doing under there?" my nurse would call out.

with

101

100
,,Nothing; we're playing." And then we would make a great noise with our
reality, we
playthings, which we had taken with us for the sake of appearances. ln
we had
other;
each
not
with
but
each
other
beside
otherwise,
amused ourselves

Hero of my childhood, limmy Stewart's Friend,

what I afterwards learnt are catled "bad habits""6

Couldn't think ofanything to say. AldousHuxley

unione has to be out of place (an anomaly) in order to enter the anecdotal
verse. For example, imagine young Matthias in Hollywood:

Star
I

think he stood like that for ten or fifteen minutes,

Which is almostworthy of hexameters'


Whywas he standing on his head?

mightily
Perplexed-a student down from Stanford

That he'd Picnicked recentlYwith


Atdous HuxteY-meant to be there at
The party-and the aging Chaplin, when they
Found themselves on someone's private property
Accosted by the police' They were told they'd have

finish lunch:

This is Charlie Chaplin, back for a visit to America'


The cop damn well knew Chaplin when he saw

him-

walk-

These three tresPassers could

it up and move it out, he said-and that

Included Charlie Chan . . .'z

An anecdote aboutbeingout of placel It continues (sorry, but an anecdotal


poem has to be cited in full, since it has, after all, a beginning, middle, and
end, each of which is indispensable to the whole)And I thought
I knewAldous HuxleYwhen I saw himApproached a tall man in a corner sipping wine

Who said-Bu

t t' m leff Chandler, actually!

Astonished,

stared atChiefCochise, noble lndian

is

quite

So is Ch arlie Chaplin, who is ov er ther e.

Chandler

said-

lsherwood still standing on his head. (K, 9)

fall off the screen, or out of history, into the anecdote. One could

give this screw another turn by way of Mikhail Bakhtin's take on the Platonic

dialogue and its effect on the Athenian public sphere, whose epic songs and

how casually the Symposium is framed (t7za-t74a): Apollodorus is asked about a


banquet atwhich Socrates and others discussed the question oflove, and after

lust that day and thought he ought to celebrate'


And then he stood on his head. He told me

Pack

dozen times.

an everyday life-world that Plato's writings transcribe as if overheard.'8 Recall

ln 1.A., lookingatanother kind of life')


He said he's finished his new novel

Little guy with a derby, cane & funny

long-winded orations are brought down to street-level talk and made thereby
palpable and mute: roguish Socrates relocates lon and Protagoras offstage in

(l was standing on my feet, and

To leave. Huxley said: Do just let us

which l'd seen

He's talking with Marlene Dietrich,

Names

title'

Broken Arrow

0ld, he sniffed.

CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD STANDS ON HIS HEAD


Half way to a doubte dactyl with that

of

could feel myself perspiring, and

some sorting out as to when exactly the banquet occurred (some fifteen years

earlier, it turns out), he proceeds to relate the entire conversation-as he had


heard it from Aristodemus ("in his exact words"). The Symposium, like most

of

Plato's dialogues, is an extended anecdote.

Matthias's "Automystifstical Plaice" (zooz) is collage of anecdotal pieces


about the early Parisian avant-garde that links Georges Antheil's Bolletmdcanique j9z4) to the invention of radio-guided torpedoes, a connection made
possible by Hedy Lamarr's descent from the screen back into the time of her
life when she was wife to the Viennese arms manufacturer Friedrich Mandl,
from whose business she learned a great deal about weapons technology. Antheil's Ballermdcaniquewas (and is) itself a piece of high-tech weaponry, scored
for sixteen player pianos accompanied by two grand pianos played by live
musicians, as well as three xylophones, seven electric bells, three airplane
propellers, and a siren.'e If I follow the narrative correctly, the problem with
guiding torpedoes via radio signals is that the enemy could easily jam the airways. Hedy Lamarr's idea was to prevent jamming by communicatingwith the
torpedoes via changing (or "hopping") frequencies-but how to synchronize
these frequenry changes in both transmitter and torpedo? Antheil's solution:
slotted paper rolls of the kind one would need to synchronize the sounds produced by multiple player pianos.'o
Antheil is much the most interesting figure here. Born in Trenton, New lersey, he was a quintessential American in Paris, where, in ry23, a performance
oIhis dissonant sona(as (he was himself the soloist) became the scene of a riot

103

102
staged by his

friends-including

Ezra Pound and lames

loyce-and fitmed

the French auteur Marcel L'Herbier to provide footage for his film
(1924), starring Georgette LeBlanc as Claire Lescot (an automaton

by

L'lnhumoine

ofsorts-

,.the girl without any mother born a machine"-who occasionally is given


lines to speak in Matthias's Poem):''

He begins

plaice-

you're fishing again in some pre-Riemannian river


and don't understand the riviters have it all over

the rhetors who can't even master the minor recursions

out of Bohemia via Berlin's RUR.

while minding the algorithmical gaps.

with Sonata Sauvage.

A camera's panning the audience,

to the races with Hem at Anteuil, the year

to your automystifsticaI

riot

(those lights are too many, too bright.)


Mere human being he sits there robotic she looks like
a presence

Great Lord, she says, Mon Dieu.


That must have been one nine two three, the year I went

youngAntheilwas going to play Cyclops for iim.


A working title indeed, she says, a walking tittle or tattle l'd say

Thddtre des Champs Elysdes. Everyone's there. The soloist

doesn't know that he is a she. He doesn't know


he's set up, doesn'tyet know they've scripted him in

nique whose sounds ("clickityclack") follow one another the way notes in Antheil's Sonaresauvage (tg4) do:

No one could actually ploy that piano

pick out the famous:

roll

wrote into the score,

Picasso and loyce, Duchamp, Milhaud and Satie'


We see them there with Leblanc as Lescot in the film

the digitals moving at speeds and at intervals

butwe don't hear a sound Mr. Pound leaping


right out ofhis seat and shaking his fist as people begin

So down at the hurdle went Manzu, tossing his jock,

to walk out on Antheil himself at his Airplane Sonata


by now sweating and sweating away but we don't hear a thing
at the girl

without any mother born

nobody's ten carboniferous digits could match.


and Hdros the Twelfth and L'Yser dashed at long odds
for the finish. Seining out in the sea near Le Havre
as we gaze

machine

you wouldn't net any sonnets much less Seigneurs

out of Proust. You understand, she insists,

who would sing out success du scandale a clickityctack


ofthe dactylicanapests jerking the film

there are no parallel lines in rivers thatwind & nothing butnorhing

through a circle oflight the soloist booed from the stage


the piano rolls looping their loops

trust

in tlvelve Pianolas electronic bells and


another Picabia made from the parts

xylophone siren

of a Model-T Ford. (WP,5)

on Antheil: "Antheil is probably the first artist to use machines.


"MaI mean actual modern machines, without bathos." To which he adds:
chines are musical. I doubt if they are even very pictorial or sculptural, they
and
have form, but their distinction is not in form, it is in their movement
essence.""
if
their
as
d'orre,
raison
lose
enerry; reduced to sculptural stasis they
his
That grinding sound you hear as you read this isTheodorAdorno turning in
"it
is
grave (,.As little as art is to be defined by any other element," says Adorno,
Ezra Pound

simply identicalwith form" [AT, r4o]).

In this same modernist spirit, one might say that while "Automystifstical
Plaice" is anecdotal, its connective tissue is material rather than [ormal, more
mdco'
acoustic or even percussive than narrative-think of it ;rs .t kirrtl ol pot\ma

my love appears to cohere from inside the system


me

l'm

truffler

I know

my way around. (WP, 6)

Georgette LeBlanc is the name Hemingway gave to a prostitute in The Sun Also
Rises. The real Georgette LeBlanc Q875-tg4r) was the lover of Margaret Anderson (1886-1973), editor of the Litde Reyiew. Antheil composed some music for
an (unfinished) opera based on the "Cyclops" episode of .;oyce's Ulysses. Hdros
XII was a celebrated racehorse at Anteuil (France) during the years following

World War t (but the race in question was won by L'Yser, owned by Louis,lean
Victor Sdv6re Decazes de Ghicksberg, 4th Duke de Decazes and 4th Hertig of
Gliicksberg). Oddly, the 1xford English Dictionory doesn't recognize the word
"truffler" (a mycologist of sorts, connoisseur of edible fungi), which otherwise might pass as the name for a trickster (to truffis to deceive), or maybe
someone who just deals in simulacrs-images for which there are no originals
(pre-Riemannian or Euclidean rivers), which in a way is what movie stars and
rnaybe all sights and sounds and words of verse are: electro-mechanizations
oIthe world-picture.

105

104
Where

EP is Express

Pdquette. Who plays, thatwhore, for larks.

Your laundry

list-and

took away the twig. lmpressed, she

That open door ofMontparnasse. And Harpo Marx. These sparks

Bathed the stranger in the stream where she had washed

that fly. And A s pneumatic-driven notes become electric quotes

Her under things along

from 1923. ln r94r it's done in spite of Paramount for Miss Lamarr.
And then it's done for Milstar in the sky or Disklavier that's clear
on time's uncertain rhymes. Twelve hundred measures in your file

Cricket togs. But soon she realized she's left the list itself at home

for sequencing. Select your samples from a hand-cranked siren and


orchestral betl and biwing props. Prepare a click track and beware
the signatures that change six hundred times. Calculate in
milliseconds and deploy the sixteen retrofitted grands. Clap hands. (WP, za)

of Balletmdcanique: in the digital age "As pneumatic-driven


notes become electric quotes" driving both the satellite Milstar (launched in
rggO) and Yamaha's pianolas that are synchronized by electromechanical solenoids and optical sensors, thereby making it possible at last to realize An-

On the afterlife

theil's score as originally conceived.


All of this tends toward the conclusion that John Matthias writes a special
kind of comic poetry, different from Charles Bernstein's stand-up routines,
Steve McCaffery's ludic wordplay, or David Antin's talk. l've mentioned that
the anecdote belongs to the common world of gossip, joking, the backstory, street-talk. Bakhtin would locate the anecdote within the topside-down

history of laughter, which is to say among "the forms and variations of


parodic-travestying, indirect, conditional discourse" that have been the irrepressible gadflies ofthe serious, straightforward word, especiallysince Roman
times-"ltwas Rome," Bakhtin says, "that taught European culture to laugh
and ridicule."': (Recall that neither the Homeric heroes nor the church fathers
ever laugh, while "loking lesus" was born in an Irish pub.) Here is Matthias at
his most Roman, translating the 0dyssey into "Laundry Lists and Manifestoes"
(and Nausicaa into a California Girl)Meanwhile in the elsewhere, Nausicaa was playing
With her beach ball having done the wash and laid it out on
Rocks to dry: her thong, her super-low-cut jeans, her black-lace
Demi-bra and other things she's ordered from the catalogue
She read

Suddenly

with flashlight underneath her sheet.


a

stranger came out

ofthe bushes holding

lust a leaff twig to hide his genitals. She told him that her name was
Nausicaa and that she'd come to do the wash. Then
She asked to see his manifest. Alas, he said, l've lost it
My ship and all my men, but you can put this on

with

with father's robes and brother's

With half the things the whisperer had spoken of. (K, ro6)
I think of Matthias as the incarnation (perhaps better to say: the rejuvenation)
of the rogue poer, a scholarly Petronius upending from within the gated community of a universiry the hallowed or hollow missions, not to mention the

self-importance, of official culture, whether academic or literary, ail of course


without those in charge knowing a thing about it, and now much too late to
stop it:
Clans ofcourtesans and baseball fans hurrah
Among the tangled wires and brachia

The polys, seriations, pleonasms in extreme

Ofthe quantum ofthe zero ofthe one ofthe watcher


Of the disambiguating
decoherence ofthe end

ofthe beginning

and beginning ofthe end

Ofthe letrer ofthe law ofthe laughter of


the lawless . . . (K, tz6),+

"Laughter of the lawless": that's it, exactly. Let's hear it for the reprobate.

107
thought of as the Leibniz of twentieth-century analytic philosophy, may offer
some preliminary suggestions. Prynne is citing one of Lewis's essays, "Languages and Language" 0g1il, which takes up once more a question Lewis had
asked in his first book, Convention (1969): namely, "What is a language?" The
first form of Lewis's answer (in its analytic idiom) had looked like this: "L is
an actual language of P if and only if there prevails in P a convention of truthfulness in L, sustained by an interest in communication."s The idea is that a
language is not (just) a formal system for framing representations; it is also
a social activity governed by whatever it is that governs social practices so as
to ensure that a population P will hold these practices in common and do its
best to make them work. Lewis's definition aims to identifu the social conditions that make an "actual" language L possible: specifically, "a convention of

ADDING GARBAGE
TO LANGUAGE
olr i. h. pnynnG's
f

"not-youtt

. H. Prynne's "Not-You" (1993) begins with two epigraphs, the first by David

Lewis and the second byThomas Nagel:


Truthfulness-by-silence is truthfulness, and expectation thereof is expectation of
truthfulness; but expectation of truthFulness-by-silence is not yet trust.
Love of semiconductors is not enough.'

point in this chapter is to see whether the first of these epigraphs


sheds any light, or has any bearing, on Prynne's recondite poem.' (Let us
bracket, for the present, the second epigraph.3) "Not-You" is made of a series
of austere, mostly minimalist lyrics whose arrangement seems to have been
given careful architectural attention. lt begins and ends with a series of eight
My starting

neatly lineated nine-line poems, each divided into three stanzas; in between
these book-ends are a number of free-verse and even fragmentary pieces, but

also a sequence of five eight-line lyrics, some of them with end-rhymes.a Exegesis from scratch does not appear to be a useful way to approach this material. So the idea here is to begin by asking what sort of material have we got in

this assembly. The epigraph from David Lewis (r94r-zoor), who is sometimes

t06

truthfulness," that is, a presupposition (underwritten by "an interest in communication") that a spoken or written sentence will be, whatever its defects,
true. (lt might be interesting to speculate, however contrary to Lewis's intentions, as to what would follow from a practice of falsehood, or maybe just a
congenital failure of truthfulness: not surprisingly Swift's Gulliver'sTrqvels, with
its Houyhnhnms and Yahoos, springs to mind.) In the revised version of the
definition of L that appears in "Language and Languages," Lewis added the
necessity of trust: "My proposal is that the convention whereby a population
P uses a language L is a convention of truthfulness and trust in 1," where the object oftrust is the truthfulness ofpropositions uttered in 1.6 Speaking, understanding, or having a language means, in other words, having confidence in
your conventions and practices (trusting, for example, that people more often
speak like Houyhnhnms than like Yahoos).7
Lewis's essay, "Language and Languages," is an attempt to answer, among
other things, a variety of unsurprising objections to his assertion of a "convention of truthfulness," since, after all, much of human talk is not propositional (logical and cognitive) in its form but is "untruthful" in all sorts of free
and easy ways-irony, metaphor, hyperbole, joking, tall tales, and white lies
ilrc some of the "nonserious" utterances that Lewis mentions. Lewis does not
cxamine conditions, perhaps of the kind Samuel Beckett imagines, in which
,rrry confidence in language seems altogether foolhardy-a condition that,
r ounterintuitively, does not inhibit various kinds of garrulity (think of The Unmnoble). But Lewis does address an interesting issue, which he frames first as
.rrr objection to his thesis:
ofP; that is, the language that ought to count as
rlrc most inclusive language used by P. (Assume that P is homogeneous.) Let L+

Oltjccrion. Let L be the language

109

108
very long and difficult
to pronounce, and hence never uttered by P, with arbitrary chosen meanings in
(My emphasis')
L+. Then it seems that L+ is a language used by P, which is absurd.
be obtained

by

adding gorbage

to

L: some extra sentences,

A sentence never uttered at alt is a fortiori never uttered untruthfully. So


truthfulness-as-usual in L plus truthfulness-by-silence on the garbage sentences
constitutes a kind of truthfulness in L+; and the expectation thereof constitutes
trust in L+. Therefore we have a prevailing regularity of truthfulness and trust in
in comL+. This regularity quatifies as a convention in P sustained by an interest
munication. (r87)

without trying to master the technicalities here, I want to extract the point
that L+ is a language never "used" by a population (that is, anyone we know
o0; it is obtained by adding garbage to a language we actually speak-"some extra sentences, very long and difficult to pronounce, and hence never uttered
by P. " What about this garbage? The objector proposes that garbage sentences
"connot false; they are rather examples of"truthfulness-by-silence" that
are

stitutes a kind oftruthfulness in L+; and the expectation thereofconstitutes


trust in L+."
Now part of Lewis's reply to this obiection is whatwe are given in Prynne's epigraph, to wiI "Truthfulness-by-silence is truthfulness, and expectation thereofis expectation oftruthfulness; but expectation oftruthfulness-by-silence is

notyettrust."The replycontinues: "Expectation of(successful) truthfulnessexpectation that a given sentence will not be uttered falsely-is a necessary
but not sufficient condition for trust. There is no regularity oftrust in L+, so far
asthegorbagesenrcncesarcconcerned. Hence there is no convention of truthfuland L+ is not used by P" (r87; my emphasis)' The question
the
is how to read the sentence "There is no regulariry oftrust in L+, so far as
that
it,
is
of
some
or
difficulty,
garbage sentences are concerned." Evidently the
garbage sentences render truthfulness (and therefore trust) vacuous, since

ness and

trust in

L+,

"in any
there will never be an occasion in which such sentences are Put to use
reasonable sense" (Philos ophical Papers, r87), whatever that might mean.8 But
then of course there is the problem of what to do when garbage sentences
look
do turn up in one,s L. what might "adding garbage to language" actually
like? Naturally, since we are trying to read Prynne, thoughts fly to Poetry's

invite his enjoyment. Neither is a wicked irony to be dismissed out of hand:


depending on conditions, "truthfulness-by-silence" might be, in practice,
hard to distinguish from one of its companions, for example, a mental reservation once associated with the f esuits (can one trust silence?). But there is in
addition Lewis's intriguing concession (see note 8) that garbage sentences, despite appearances, enlarge the possibilities ofwhatcan count (logically, philosophically) as a language. A garbage sentence, remember, is not false, if only
by default ofnever being uttered in L (what is called "truthfulness-by-silence");
nor, evidently for the same reason, does garbage conflict with the "interest in
communication" (being, after all, a possible-successful-speech-act in L+).
So the inference would be that, counterintuitively, we ought to judge Prynne's
own sentences, such as they are, if that is what they are, as philosophically
justified according to analytic arguments that, paradoxically, these sentences
appear to confound and confuse, if only by shaking our trust in L. The upshot
is that coping with L+ (that is, coping with a language that we [P] do not use)
is not a matter of mastering rules and understanding systems but a pragmotic
matter of trial and error, the more so because, after all, the problem is how to
deal with a language to which garbage has been added, not just as a thought
experiment (Lewis) but to make a poem (Prynne). lf I have this right, Prynne
is on the side of Lewis in thinking that, whatever our theories of language os
such might propose, 0 language is a practice with innumerable alternative possibilities as to how conventions of truthfulness, and so forth, might be, if not
satisfied, then at least acknowledged and maybe even celebrated by the way we
foolwith them (which is surelywhat Prynne is doing).'o
ln any case, imagine this complexiry that I have just tried to describe (supposing that it makes some sense) as the conceptual background against which
"Not-You" starts out:
The twins blink, hands set to thread out
a

dipper cargo with tithium grease enhanced

to break under heat stress. Who knows


what cares arise in double streaks, letting
the door slip to alternative danny boy indecision. She'lI cut one hand offto whack
the other same-day retread, leaving its mark

possibly Prynne's choice of Lewis's difficult sentence as an epigraph for his


poem is just another instance of the wide range of his arcane discursive pleathat
sures; or maybe it is iust the sound and shape of the wor<ls itl t hc cpigraph

two transfiguration at femur tength. Ahead


the twins consult, shade over upon shade. (P,

:8:)

111

110
Someone, but probably not David Lewis, might say that "conventions of truthfulness and trust, sustained by an interest in communication," urge us to read
these lines as a narrative (which is, in its Aristotelian form, a species of propositional language). This urge is what "trust in L" might be thought to entail.
So (we may ask) what about the twins? Are they assigned an assembly-line
task of tubricating tools or machinery, which is what "lithium grease" is
for? The verbal details in these lines are obviously in excess of anything so
straightforward-here the "dipper cargo" is "enhanced / to break under heat
stress,,,which makes a hash of "lithium grease"-but no doubt a certain ingenuity could continue to play about with possible plots: that the twins "blink,"
for example, might be a sign of hesitation or anxiety-who knows, after all,

"what cares arise in double streaks," as opposed to cares felt only in one? one
wonders whether "letting / the door slip to alternative danny boy in- /decision" turns on a colloquialism (concerning whether to head out the door or
not). Meanwhile the woman possessing (one infers) some sort meat-ax and
corresponding thoughts of dismemberment is cause enough for blinking. lt
may or may not be superfluous to add that ifyour hands are removed your upper limbs may no longer quite reach "femur length." Hence "the twins con-

sult, shade over upon shade," putting their heads together, cheek by jowl, trying to decide what to do next. As for the bloody event: Arrive-t-il? In a possible
world perhaps.
Of course, one could also try to read the poem as if the twins were a pair of
eyes: possibilities, Iike worlds, are without number.
The problem with trying to make these nine lines come out true (in some
sense of truth as coherence) is that the effort, however customary in a disciprocedure as it is trivial in its results. Besides, trying
to read garbage sentences as if they could be made into sentences of L seems
to be a way of missing the point of Prynne's invocation of David Lewis, whose
counsel, if I follow him, would be thatwe should tryto emigrate to the alternative universe in which L+ is a possible language instead of allegorizing garbage
ptinaryway, is as tedious

onto it grids that fit the sentences we construct here at home'"


some semblance of an alternative world might be extracted from leanFrangois Lyotard's TheDffirend,with its conception of phrases whose linkages
"obey other regimens than the logical and the cognitive [and] can have stakes
other than the true," as in the case of parataxis, which for Lyotard is one of the

by mapping

distinctive features of modernism:


The term lparataxlsignals a simple addition, the apposition of one term with the

"modother, nothing more. Auerbach [Mimesis] turns this into a characteristic of


ern,,style, paratax, as opposed to classical syntax. collioirrt'tl hy rtrtd, phrases or

events follow each other, but their succession does not obey a categorical order
(because; if,rhen; in order to; olthough . . .).

rises out

;oined to the preceding one by ond, a phrase

of nothingness to link up with it. Paratax thus connotes the abyss of

Not-Being which opens between phrases, it stresses the surprise that something
begins when what is said is said. And is the conjunction that most allows the constitutive discontinuiqr (or oblivion) of time to threaten, while deffing it through
its equally constitutive continuity (or retention). . . . lnstead of and, and assuring
the same paratactic function, there can be

comma, or nothing. (D, 65-66)

Nothing, says Leibniz, is without reason. So whywrite paratactically? What underwrites or justifies the juxtaposition rather than interconnection ofphrases? Not an easy question: parataxis is the figure or form ofwriting that defeats
the giving of reasons (the question of why) because it breaks up consecutive
reasoning (because,if-then,inorderto), which is to say itdefeats the integration
of parts into a whole, or the formation of contexts, on which intelligibility depends (the venerable hermeneuticalcircle). Meaning just means belonging to

in parataxis the part is insubordinate to anything larger than


itself, which is the basic anarchic principle of fragmentary writing-writing in

a context, but

which contexts fail to form. From a Leibnizian standpoint, the juxtaposition


rather than interconnection ofphrases is just adding garbage to [anguage.
Lyotard turns Leibniz's world upside-down. The purpose of paratax is: "To
save the phrase: extract it from the discourses in which it is subjugated and restrained by rules oflinking, enveloped in their gangue, seduced by their end"
(D, 68). ("Gangue" is the worthless

material-sand, rock, or other impurities-

surrounding a mineral of interest. The OED calls it "the earthy or stony matter in a mineral deposit; the matrix in which an ore is found." Lyotard, like
the old alchemist, wants to turn gangue into gold.) Traditional hermeneutics
"saves the text" (makes it come out true) by finding a reasonable place or context for the aberrant phrases that inhabit it-what used to be called "allegory." In Lyotard's hermeneutics freedom trumps truth. Paratax confers upon a
phrase-a word or meaning or maybe just the sound or shape of some linguistic material-an autonomy otherwise foreclosed by the principles of internal necessity that motivate grammatical formations and lexical coherence
(hypotax).'' lnstead ofdisappearing into the crowd a phrase is, so to speak,
exhibited or theatricalized as a thing in itself.';
"Not-You" is, whatever else it is, a paratactic poem ofsaued phrases. Here
lre some samples: "he does well / at the promise line" (P, 384); "everything
titillates to the contrary" (e,385); "a pervasive overtone" (P,386); "portico
pay-outl Creep reductionl" (P,3BB); "refitcrooked intercession" (P,389); "to
strip choicc lornratior.r / front its blister pack" (P, 39t); "the flush deepens to

113

112
(P' :g8); "the
ingot words under / killed steel" (P, zsl); "some indrawn spine"

.lipsn.gs"ttheferrule" (p,4oz);"critical flowtore-mapasoftverge"(P,+oq).


sentence (or' more
None oithese phrases is grammatically coherent with the
call a singuloriry,
might
one
is
what
accurately, the period) that contains it; each
or for no
which is (in catastrophe theory) a point at which, without warning'

to the contrary).'4
reason, something changes into something else ("titillates
word "break" is as
the
things-where
of
order
the
A singularity is a break in

jailbreak or when one takes


much a term of freedom as of destruction, as in
job of work. And then of course there are "episa break from one's routine or
or for all
temological breaks,,' as from one picture of the universe to another,
the
ofthat from one word to another, as when (see above) "overtone" usurps
poems
are
what
are
"tine
breaks"
of "undertone." Meanwhile
semanticthrone
pages quite fearless:
made of, on which point "Not-You" is for a couple of
Her pan

click

Marking up assertion's vapour why don't


they gain back anyway, in belligerent cover

plan to tall command; front load later added


better to sour rack division. That's to sell
out attainmentwashes at silver top debate,
curtly in set-aside bit, bit, soon to beam
this family in main display. Few laps ring
the order teeming with order ranking, though
sad at critical flow to re-map a soft verge (P, 4o4)

How one might go about "Marking up assertion's vapour" is a nice question,


unless one were to imagine that "assertion's vapour" is cousin to the nominalist's flatus yocis, which is one way to describe the material of Prynne's poem:
namely (in by no means a descending order of importance), phrases, words,

syllables, consonants, vowels, phonemes, letters-elements that in other


contexts are defined by their work of mediation, but which here enjoy the freedom (or anarchy) that open or paratactic forms make possible.

elb
second fix

forthem
pencil

breather Park
over
tatk

entertain this hermeneutic possibiliry, namely that we should try to


read "Not-You" serially, that is, not by trying to integrate phrases into larger

So let us

at small to

better or yet
in hours

boiling

as
as

sun wi[[ on

ban

herlinker'''(P'Sgz)
.,Not-You,,

up
Another way to Put this is that none of the phrases that make
"relation"
to the
its
in
mainly
only
or
is (merely) nonsensical by itself but
"new
bit
a
is
every
line"
phrar"s that surround it: "he does well at the promise

that are resentence,, in Ron silliman's famous description of constructions


("promise" dislodging
sistant to context-formation because of their "torque"

,.finish,, is atorque,a singularity).,5The Point is doubly interesting


just cited' Prynne frames his ecbecause, with the exception of the fragments
stanzaic
centric phrases within what look for all the world like conventional
end the
and
begin
that
poems
nine-line
eight
of
groups
forms, particularly the
poem as a whole:

the expected

units (as we do in L) but to take them, willy-nilly, as they come (L+): fragments
that are not broken pieces of something conceivably whole but singulorities
whose virtue lies in their abruptness, their interruptions ofusual sense, their
anomalous refusal ofany categorical order ofsuccession. Like "Not-You" as
a whole, "Marking up assertion's vapour" is a series of small catastrophes"why don't / they gain back anyway," "front load later added / better to sour
rack division," "to sell / out attainment washes," "curtly in set-aside bit, bit,
soon to beam / this family in main display." The task would then be to pick
up on things (anomalies, lunacies, echoes)

thatwhirlwithin this turbulence.,6

It seems important to advise that lohn Wilkinson, not to say Prynne himsel[, would reject this way of reading the poem as a "wallow in unearned prodigality" ("Counterfactual Prynne," r95), which would mean reading Prynne
as if he were just another "language poet" championing aleatory combinations and "the rejection of closure." ln his "Letter to Steve McCaffery" Prynne
stands against "the totalising rebuttal of grammar accompanied by an uncarronical employment o[ its phrasal serialism" (44). Meanwhile in "Counter-

115

114

in "Not-You" (or at least


factual Prynne" Wilkinson argues that the Poems
an "algebra" ofthe kind
to
the first eight ofthem) are stiuctured according
of thoughts when we
and
that governs the combination of images in dreams
in W' R' Bion's terms' as
are awake: "The poem's activity could be conceived'
sensory impression into a
marked by alpha-function, that is as processing
the waking day" (tgS)'
during
dream-work which according to Bion is active
on despite' among
going
is
The idea is that a systematic linking of phrases
nouns [that proposes]
other things, "the deployment of uncontextualized
(rS8)''' Wilkinson doesn't
connections made in a space we do not inhabit"
Learnin g from Experience:8
Bion's
R'
W'
give us a reference, Uut hL is thinking of
works on
alpha-function
(or brain,s)
I-f I und",,tand Bion,s theory, the mind,s
them
to
turn
in order
sensations or the elements of immediate experience
up both our dreams
into cg-elements-memories, for example-that make
function (or not
always
not
does
and our waking life. But the alpha-function
memories or
into
transformed
always in everyone). lf not, sensations are not
calls these unused and unusmaterials we might dream or think with' Bion
ablematerialsB-elements,whicharemorelikemerethingsthanthoughts.

syntax or algebraic
might ask, arguing in favor of paratax rather than
"Not-You"
are not more
up
d"ep stru.irres, whether the phrases that make
not amephrases
thinglike
like B-elements than oa-elements, that is, opaque'
metaphor' garbage'
nable to mentalfunctions-or, in David Lewis's

So one

poem composed inwhat

Atthe centerof"Not-You" there is a thirty-two-line


..sentence,, reads as fol[ows:
,.free
verse.,, lts first
one might just as well cal[

line clasp essentials," where "clasp" substitutes for "grasp," which idiomatically is what one usually does with "essentials." The whole idea of "lines" is to
keep them clear, but here the "sentence" is not an orderly sequence ofwords
in a line but a series ofoverlapping or self-interfering layers punctuated by a
variety of echoes-"all the claim to same" is a local echo, whereas "to shun
this terrible cure" is one of the many free infinitives that appear in "Not-You,"
and it reminds us that "seeking the cure" is idiomatic but not always the best
course when it may prove lethal, as cures frequently do ("there are plagues intent on this" [386]).
The poem continues:
Across clouded
skies the current lies at

crossed tiving abruptly, outshining


the smart pulse in its sheltered prospect,

not like shoes and food in

clamour of

spent cases by rounding up

to the last place defence.


Each says the same,

applying to take

out ofthis bruised event the frame ofprovoked


aversion. Ablative child care bleeds

tonightl

Sound and sense play off one another in a series of collisions, confusions,
echoes, and turnabouts that keep the lines from forming a sentence, which
they nevertheless threaten to do as thecurrentliesacrosscloudedskies,outshiningthe

With an eye turning for entry, mostwill


gather as others have, from the spicy bed

loose norwinding downto alastditch defense,

ofa risingvertical trust: enough to clear


line to line clasP essentials, all

over, against the recurring background noise of a bruised body's exposure to


its undoing, or perhaps its dissolution into the fluid state:

the same to claim Plus set-off


this terrible cure' (394)
shun
to

for the words or phrases that apAre there meanings (or "readings") available
what is the difference bepear in this paratactic arrangement? For example'

tvveenaneyethatturnsandonethatlooks?onelooksforanentrance,escape,
or event (say a noise or
or opportunity, but one turns toward an apPearance

possibilities fan out in


,ou.n1. lnstead of categorical orders of succession'
..turning,, could thus be a substitute for .,looking,,, as
multiple directions.
.,trust,, could be a substitute ior "thrust" in the phrase that follows, dependplaygrounds or herbal garing on what we take "spicy beds" to be-erotic
"t'llotrlllt to clcar / line to
dens? There is no context, only serial formations

smartbutshekered pulse,whileshoes andfood do their bitofclomoring, roundingup nothing

or words to that

effect-all this, more-

They all got blood delay


at the wrist insert marker,

lifting

a cover

over blackswilled albumen. (386)

"Ablative child care bleeds tonight!" is one of the oddest of these echoes.
The line blares like a headline or marquee inviting us to come and watch. To

what noun does one's ear assign the adjective? Do I know or have I heard of
oblative children? The ablative case is one that most languages have lost, a fate
many children share. But the word is also a medical term: "ablation" means
removing the causes, symptoms, or consequences of some disease or disordcr, which is what carc of children, but perhaps not in a day-care center, aims

116

,r: 1;'

1i ;:'j t

t17

,i.

to achieve (by blood-letting?). lncongruities accumulate the more one stares


at the line, but that's what liberated phrases add up to, and it is what we are
meant to experience. The poem in any case shows that dissonance is a form of
wit (which is, whatever else it is, an unexpected experience of meaning):
No grip frightens the one

falling

es," but in fact it is a piece of bone, the heel or "huckle-bone," from which dice

of

dice, which is an ancient form of "provision, " coping with the unforeseeable
(as one must do with parataxis); butthe OfD abo lists it as an architectural term

troop tint delaY affront, there


is no default position at true discount
up to innumerably more. Stop the boat
a

of

deferral or return ("winding / up to replace a slipped bracelet")-perhaps this


even applies in some way to the "yawning astragal": "astragal" sounds pastoral, coming as it does off the "mutual / fond delay" in which "the day advancwere once made-hence astragalomonq, the art of forecasting by the casting

mild derision, the acts have


been performed in mimic

by

with

These lines (mostly) give us gentler, more subtle forms of motion, promises

section that separates different parts ofthe architrave in ornamental entablatures (hence "yawning"). None of these possibilities, however, is meant
to displace the unfamiliar sound and look of the word itself, with its soft allu-

for

plug for floatation: the mothers assemble

at the sorting office, provably liquid he says


in pro tanto extinction. (394)

sion to the stars. The word is not a function but an experience.


On the facing page the poem either continues or is followed by another in
the same free-verse form:

"No grip frightens the one falling" is, having the form ofa proverb, as true a
proposition as David Lewis could wish for. But it is one thing to fall and be
caught, quite another to be succeeded "by mild derision," among other non
sequiturs. The term "anacoluthon" means "want of grammar," but the aim of
paratax (certainly in Prynne's case) is not just the mixing of word-salads but to
play the meanings of words agoinst their syntactic positions, if only to see what
happens: "Stop the boat / with a plug for floatation": "boat" occupies the place
of "[eak," while "a plug" is not, strictly speaking, a floatation device, although
properly placed it will prevent sinking the way a grip will keep someone fal[ing from descent. Meanwhile "the mothers assemble / at the sorting office,"
no doubt searching for their ablative children (who are, as all of us are, "prov-

sway of a

ably liquid" and,"protqntg" [sooner or later], doomed to "extinction" like assertions that vaporize). Likewise, like a "default position" (but unlike falling,

now invisible in the furious storm. (395)

with its horror of the fateful bottom),


Blind

wiltingly, no fear
tripping the snug instep to a price floor,
gentle planets counting, rates mounting, winding
up to replace a slipped bracelet. Thus in mutual
transfer goes ahead

fond delay the daY advances


yawning astragal with due
race to provision beyond the fixed mark

of

break-out liable detachment, laid apart. (394)

From whose seed spread out


bend and cut, in the field, in far
rows sideways

partingwith the left


hand, in plane or out over, the movement

ofa deep-shaded allocation: but grind


at the back, to the

root, ofone chilci

in the profile sombre to black


where section presides willingly, so they
go to bend with the overt

little

dust
marked by croud

Something like the open distribution of a (rural) landscape seems to form in


these lines without, however, cohering into a settled state of affairs. One has
to wonder, amongotherthings, how"partingwith the left/ hand" differs from
partingwith the right, which somehow has a biblical intimation, as of sheep
From goats. Of course one parts with a hand that is cut of[, which seems to be
the fate of hands in this poem, and notof hands only: atone pointsomeone or
something is "found dead in a bundle" (388). And then there is the recurrence
otthe child, who seems ablative just in the sense of being in a "profile sombre
to black." Occlusion is certainly a recurring effect-"Not-You" is a very cloudy
;roem, although here the cloud is made invisible by a "furious storm," which

118

"J

": '

;"

what happens when skies darken at midday, as do rooms at night or stairs at


their top, and as one's old mind does without warning ("darkness shades the
is

witless question" [ao7]).


The free-verse poems are, interestingly, followed by five eight-line lyrics,
the first, third, and fifth of which are distinctive for their end-rhymes:
Their catch-up is slow and careful
to limit levels in thick shade
fallen there but untouched Yet
by the hot slants which fade

ilt
\

119
side the dentist's office, and which here seems to have overtaken the respira-

tory work of "intakes." The word perhaps invokes once more the background
figure of a stressed body-"this once beaten frame," the "indrawn spine," the
"cut-out hand," "fear," "missing parts / inturning as with new eyes" ("inturn-

ing,"

as

in "indrawn" and "inlays"),

Of course, "background" is another word for "context," any formation


of which the poem aims to confound with its relentless miscombination of
words, many or some of which, depending on one's mood or frame of mind,
ring "true" for comical rather than logical or cognitive reasons:
Based on

Both coming and going. On a stair

or quickly the defined


several inlays make a breath

of so much ascent, in mind. (396)


Adversely so far, so and

slight to salute the brow


given, this once beaten frame

will permit next to now


some indrawn spine, in due

allowance. Match on less


for the doorway, void of light
and even traPPed excess. (398)

will go to staY back,


to tell ofa cut-out hand
which well and hardly long

As

new-for-old

organ barrage, alderwithout heartoryoung


cheese

without bone (4o3)

The organ here doesn'tsound like a Hammond, despite its "barrage"-maybe

it's a street grinder, unless it's a body part; the "alder without heart" might be
the black alder, which does, however, have red berries; and "young / cheese
without bone" should not be waved aside with a superior gesture just because

it brings

us up

short (l'll have the young boneless cheese, please),

as

do these

linesAvian protection like

court plank / as much as I do (38a)


they / don't think he's more casual by i the hour on low heat (387)
a

Finger prints up with the scratch attack (389)

to stay calm as / milk solids (aor)


at a cute burr segment / able grains prevail (4oz)
No acts / rot more slowly in memory (4o7)

in this, laying the band

The Avian Protection Society is dedicated to the protection of parrots in pet

of colour marks, no thought

stores (see http ://www. avianprotection. homestead.com/). But how "to stay
calm as / milk solids"? Milk solids are the fat and proteins floating in your cup,

can swell a fear to rise

up to early missing Parts


inturning as with new eYes. (4oo)

Again, the point to mark is that the (relatively) closed verse-form of these lyrics makes the paratactic play of their periods seem all the more aggressive.
There's no telling here whose "catch-up is slow"-one can imagine some fond
or maybe not-so-fond pursuit taking place up or down a stairway whose "thick
shade,,is..untouchedyet/ bythe hotslants" of light; but in factnoword falls in

comfortably with its fellows, leaving us not iust to wonder how "several inlays
make a breath / of so much ascent, in mind" but to puzzle over, among other
things, the word "inlays" itself, which is not a word onc cl]corlnters much ottt-

or mother's breast, and for all I know are conducive to sleep; but of course the

poem isn't asking a question or even constructing a sentence-whatever it


is, "So to stay calm as / milk solids in defect control amendment" (4or) is a
complexity of thought rather than a complete one. The poem is just adding
garbage to language-"scratch attack," "able grains prevail"-bits of which,
nevertheless, ring disturbingly true: "No acts / rot more slowly in memory"a phrase that surely opens up an endless series of possible worlds, in most of
which I can do little without embarrassment.

120

,.",.':

Where does all of this leave us with respect to where we started, namely
with David Lewis and his conventions of truthfulness and trust in L? A possible answer is that for all of his miscombination of words in "Not-You," not
to mention the now legendary difficulry of his Poems as a whole, Prynne re-/
mains something of a realist with respect to the language in which he writes.
Birgitta lohansson, for example, says that for Prynne "language is a window
through which consciousness verbalises experiences in the world of available
reality, and that it is a means of uncovering the condition of being. The poet
formulates existential issues in endless combinations; 'the language of the
world' as Prynne terms it, is proper poetic diction."'g The phrase "living dabs
ofsky-colour" (:sS), after all, retains its "aboutness" despite its fragmentary
appearance. ln his "Letter to Steve McCaffery," Prynne is responding to some
of McCaffery's essays in Northoflntention-for example, "Diminished Reference
and the Model Reader" and, particularly, "Writing as a General Economy,"
which draws upon Georges Bataille's concept of ddpense, the nonproductive
expenditure of energy, which is an expenditure that cannot be utilized or for
which one cannot expect a return as uPon an investment-a gratuitous expenditure outside any economy of exchange- or use-value.'o It is predicated upon
"The Notion
a principle of loss rather than on the accumulation of capital. ln

of Dd.pense" Bataille lists jewetry, religious sacrifice, kinky sex, gambling, art,
and (in particular) poetry as examples of free expenditure: "The term poetry,
applied to the least degraded and least intellectualized forms of expression of
of loss, can be considered synonymouswith expenditutelddpense);itin
fact signifies, in the most precise way, creation by means of loss'"'' ln a word'
"poetic expenditure ceases to be symbolic in its consequences": here words
cannot be exchanged for meanings, much less for things; instead they have
become events of communication, where the term "communication" means
contagion, as in "communicative disease"-something very different from

a state

what David Lewis had in mind'


prynne rejected this line of thought. of the language-centered poets whom
McCaffery is discussing, he writes: "None of them goes all the way to a general
economy of de-signification, not for lack of daring or will to testing extreme
but because I believe that language itself finally resists this singularity"-that
is (for prynne), language is a "pluralised system" whose operations are geared
to ,,energetic over-determination": not loss but excess of meaning. "More,,there is scope for innumerable combinations within the
over,,, he adds,
mapping projection of the language surface and its foldings; yet external reference is one of its stabilising axes, just as are also the internal enrichments of

21

.r

::..!

,::'

; r'i

\:.1

indeterminacy, and of self-reference." Underdetermined texts, like Gertrude


Stein's, produce "eye-skid" and "mind-wilt.""
But of course McCaffery's position is not that the poetry that he writes and
writes about is meaningless. He frequently cites Leon S. Roudiez's definition of

writing whose "organization of words (and their denotations),


grammar, and syntax is challenged by the infinite possibilities provided by letters or phonemes combining to form networks of significance not accessible
through conventional reading habits" (Nl, zo7). As McCaffery says, "Such fea-

paragrammatic

tures of general economic operation as I've outlined do not destroy the order
of meaning, but complicate and unsettle its constitution and operation" (N I,
zo9). The idea (as in Lyotard's notion of phrasing) is to enlarge our concept
of meaning beyond the limits of the "logicaI and cognitive phrase regimens"
whose purpose is to put a stop to the proliferation of meanings that we experience in puns and anagrams, among other derangements of philosophical
reason.
Perhaps one could split the difference between Prynne and McCaffery, or
between Wilkinson and the language poets, by invoking Alfred Jarry's 'Pataphysics, the "science of imaginary solutions, " which seeks out the anomalous

and the exception as against whatever belongs or fits in place.': Arguably Da-

vid Lewis's doctrine of possible worlds and his preference for the pragmatic
as against the systematic is 'pataphysical just in the sense that for him reality requires us to inhabit, or at all events to imagine or anticipate, alternative
states of affairs. McCaffery thinks of poetry as a movement from the nomic to
the ludic, from categories and distinctions to the singular and irreducible (that
which, as Adorno expresses it, is nonidentical with respect to itself). Prynne
thinks this is all very well but the nomic, the semantic, and the reference point
are ineliminable forces that, in any case, do not foreclose "innumerable combinations within the mapping projection of the language surface and its foldings." How, after all, would we recognize the anomalous and the exception
(the nonidentical) except in the form of"S is P except in the case ofy"? Anarchy
is only possible in a rule-governed space; or, as the poet Christian Bdk says,
"anomalies extrinsic to a system remain secretly intrinsic to such a system"and thereby confound its operations and deform its results: "The onomalos is
the repressed part of a rule that ensures the rule does not work. ltis a dffirence
which makes a difference and is thus synonymous with the cybernetic definition of
i nterferential information-the very measure of surprise."24
lnterferentialis a pun that one mightwellthink of applying to Prynne's method or practice o[ putting words together by keeping them apart-running

122

,., ,.

.,

q$::rrtr]

them one after another, not as if by chance but as ifwords were running interln
ference for one another, warding offcapture by the system ofthe sentence'
of
conventions
the
enlarges
or
extends
Prynne
this respect one might say that

truthfulness and trust in language to include conditions offreedom that are


implicit in the very concept of possible worlds. Think of poetry in this event
part of the
as a practice of language that brings these conditions into play as
experience'
human
candor of poetic or, for all of that,
The cure is won across twice, in

patches so cheap they

glitter

thrill to each bidder,

staring ahead to the empty room where


brightness is born and tagged; to beat
the windows of the dYingYear's fast

turn to a faction cut-back.

Ever so

smiling at this sudden real candour,


what to shun of this set cure's topmost
retort: remember me: and give now over (P, 39o)

ANOMALIES OF DURATION
IN CONTEMPORARY POETRY
Let us imagine a duration without any regular pattern. Nothing in it
would ever be recognizable, for nothingwould ever recur. ltwould
be a duration without measure of any sort, without entities, without
properties, without events-a void duration, a timeless chaos.

-George

Kubler,

TheSha pe of Time

The poet Michael Palmer cites this passage from Kubler in "Period (Sense
of Duration)," a talk given in r98z whose topic is (roughly) "the inconstancy
and mutability of our measures" when it comes to our experience of sounds,
words, or constructions of any sort.' ln the background of his talk is the fact
that much of modern and contemporarywriting is an exploration of the conflict and interplay among temporal and spatial forms-perhaps most notably
in experiments in typography, collage, seriality, and line breaks. Palmer's talk
is itself interesting because of the way it drifts or meanders, and one is led to
ask whether the drift or the meander isn't a way of defeating the measurement
of duration. Drift, after all, is lateral rather than linear: being at sea, it means
idling or sidling until a breeze develops. If meandering has a rhythm it is because it winds like a river or a snake, but its path is usually aimless or passive

t23

f I ;j l-! i. ,i ":' ii :

124

j:'r

l! i

125
We pass

"meander" is related
with respect to the surrounding terrain-etymologically
or rambling):
(wandering
mindlessly
(or
talk)
to "maunder," which is to move
Well the hearts

through it in false flight, relieved

to be there, to be bearing
once again at least

are-is-

the tick ofthe cup at the Clarion

whereyou find'em
The coffee sPilled

Clouds are not spheres we know

all over the table

now and mountains not cones (6r)

calculus of variations

bears no requirement

I was taught (c. r95o) that poetry is Euclidean by nature-in school one learns
chiefly scanning and the names of figures-but Palmer is interested in turbulence and unpredictability, that is, singularities in which without warning a

to number, form

sequence of something turns into something else (catastrophe). Timekeep-

This error we insist on

ers (clock-keepers would be a more accurate term) keep or capture very little,

in itself
as

we insist on

almost nothing, of time, which simply unfolds and never gets anywhere (or,

torn pockets, one

like sound, it "has no boundary" but just dissipates). Meanwhile we are merely
passing through it "in false flight," idlers rather than refugees, stopping here

as

to each hiP

and there, say at one ofthe links in the chain ofClarion hotels that dot the
earth where we run up the "tick"-that is, tab-at the bar. ln his brief glance
at "Fractal Song" the poet Albert Cook mentions that the last two lines are a

causing us to walk

somewhat differentlY
than before'

"Multiples." lts form


This unperiodic poem by Palmer is appropriately entitled
is

to
perhips reflected in the figure of spilling, another movement indifferent
silently
apt
is
one
Accordingly its cadences are irregular-in reading

citation from the fractal king Benoit Mandelbrot.a "Sam said or said Sam" is (if
I

understand)

geometric as opposed to

random fractal (fr. L. for fragment); at

any rate it is self-replicating, although perhaps not like a hotel chain.

,n.rrur".
orinvisiblytorewriteatleastoneofitslinestomakeitcomeoutright,.asto

its two or three


form or number," but this would deprive the poem of one of
first line' Still'
odd
the
reads
one
pieces ofpunctuation, depending on how
the context of
Given
ihe poernis divided neatly into three five-line stanzas.
palmer's talk on duration, over which the number 7 mystically presides, one
since the lines
could reflect on the numerical weight of 3 and 5, Particularly
exceptions
the
of
syllables-one
five
are composed mostly of either three or
"a
calculus of
turn:
being the line that gives the poem its principal conceptual
of
"calculus
poem). (A
variaiions,, (interestingty, the most melodic line in the
thatthe poem
variations,, is a branch of higher mathematics.3) lt is no accident
,,Fractal
is also a poem
Song,,,which
is entitled
on the page facing,.Multip[es,,
about immeasurable durations:
I

do not know where

will

be in lulY

Sam said or said Sam

The sound so measured has no boundary,


is

not triangle or square

Emphasis cannot but claim that our experience of duration is real. When
hours, minutes and seconds drain away in front ofus as this sequence
of nothings universalised into the measure oflife, then outworn iambs,
trochees and dactyls carry the promise of a real duration.

*Simon

arvis, "Prosody as Cognition"

Possibly a "calculus of variations" could be developed to measure Simon


larvis's The Unconditionql: Alyric, a poem of some 240 pages (in very small point
rype) that begins as follows:
Data float down; the own rote load doles
a

out

doubt-loud flow into the overload.

Facts, moping at

their blindness diurn, tread

the light to dumb muck for cash in one line.


Hush dim glut nraking a linear red.

127

126
Hush now to a mindless luckY smash'

lnfi nitesimatlY aPerture


the single seamless of the done told world
or prise the top offthe creep in one dull'
Now, last lowvocative of the ending-cult,
blow out the Pilot light.
Disintermed iate the vocoders.
Empty this Plea of efflcacitY.s

the endnote to the poem advises, "This poem is metrical" (heUnconditional,


z4z); thatis, it is mostly iambic all the way to the end with variations from
three to ten feet, and virtually each line sets up its own echo chamber. Depending on one's ear, the poem also articulates the paratactic idiom of "Cambridge
poetry," whose Homer is l. H. Prynne, who writes as follows in "Her Weasels

As

Wild Returning":
At leisure for losing outward in a glazed toplight
bringing milk in, another fire and pragma cape

upon them both; they'll give driven to marching

with wild fiery streak able. (P, 4to)


,,prosody as Cognition" in mind one could say that larvis's lyrical aim in
of
The Unconditional is to retrieve meter from the oblivion into which so much
how
more
it,
and
cast
to
have
is
imagined
poetry
modern and contemporary

with

dramatically to accomplish this than by writing a Poem that gives us, if nothing else, the experience of time, both the footstep of its progress-"the own
rote load doles out / a doubt-loud flow into the overload"-as well as its interminability? The poem begins in media res, and, although it stops eventually, it never really comes to a close: the last lines are a recitation of the initial
the
verse paragraph; the page that follows is a vast white space broken only by
orthographical marks of closed parentheses))))); the next Page is blank; the
final page contains the endnote. Whatever the beating temporality of the individual lines, the whole work occupies what one could call, borrowing from
Maurice Blanchot (the Newton ofparentheses), a vast entretemps that separates
past that never was from the indecisive Messiah who postpones his real existence, bewildering those of us in the "ending-cult" who refuse to believe there
is no end of history.6 This open-ended betr,veen-time is felt most strongly in

!:! 11 ;r i?} r': i i rj ,r' ;: i'

il ir r {:i iit l;" ti

i l*

t: {} i: i

,.,1

-it! :j

To describe the poem's prosody in terms of its metrics would be inadequate, for
what it engenders in the reader's breast is far from the regularity and assurance

of Alexander Pope's numbers or from the stabbing and poking of a satirist like
charles churchill. when it comes to low-life novels it may be commonplace to talk
oFa literary experience as a roller-coaster ride, butTheuncondirionol fully justifies
the figure. Pages of impossibly headlong rhythm will be startlingly blocked, for
example, by three or more lines ending with the same monosyllabic word, and
after turning on this dime, will again charge off harum-scarum through a 3oo-

word rhyme-propelled sentence. The poem transits between rhyming couplets


and blank verse, with these transitions often near-imperceptible; caesuras are extremely rare and rhymes almost always monosyllabic, hence at once thumpingly
marking the lines' enjambment and rushing across such traffic calming measures.
Here are iambics with the insistence of rap.z
Recall Kubler: "Let us imagine a duration without any regular pattern. Nothing
in itwould be recognizable, because nothing it in would ever recu r." TheL)nconditionalis a poem of irregularities, but things do, in a manner of speaking, recur. There are, as Wilkinson notes, fragments of a narrative whose characters
are named, wildly, "=x.," "Agramant," "Qnuxmuxkyl," and "lobless." But like
time the narrative, if that is what it is, is a sort of road movie that doesn't go
anywhere-randomness, contingency, interruption, singularities: these are
what time (and the poem) is made of.8 Near the very end of the poem each of
the characters is given a nine-line lyric in which, in some cases, there is the
sound of winding down or wrapping things up:
AGMMANT
I

join no chorus; I pretend no love,


My book is written and my bills are paid.

Iseal up all my legacy in packs


I

rubberize my fingerprint

and label tersely first before I send


some to a lasting name and some to dust.
Then I increase my fold or print of mind

burning all sectors which might hanker back


to any taste of origin or end. (TheUnconditional,46lT)

those pages whose lines are unpunctuated by any period. ln an extensive (and
indispensable) review of The Unconditionol the poet lohn Wilkinson provides a
description ofthe poem that can't be bettered:

But otherwise The unconditionol is a prolonged middle that mirrors itself from
time to time in jokes about horizonless places-"So this is whatAllegory, Nebraska looks like" (rra)-and episodes that dissipate into cloudy air:
Light from a depressed angle swept far across the lake.
Small craft could over an expanse ofwater be seen

q
t2B

li i ill ili

.ti

relieving
[ong narrative whose
lnterval or an interposition or an episode in an incomplete

charm

Shadesinterstitiallyitschiefpleasureinacoolorshelteredtransitionor
subPlot
of their own final
Disowning its own crimes as the necessary condition

effacement

lntoacertaingreythatuncertainlyislitwithaconcealedsun(heUnconditional,
153-54)
*r!;

Louis Zukofsky reading


ln giving his talk on duration Palmer played a tape of
of the mostcomplex poems
palmercalls.,harmonically
one
his-,.,A,_ir,,,which
and (as Palmer
in English" (Codeof Signats,2$).s Each line scans differently'
rhymes and uncertain synnotesj the combination of internal rhymes and end

taxproducesahighlyvariablemovement-"Theimageoftimesoproposed"'

254) ' Then there is "'A'-r4"


Palmer says, " is multi-directio nal" (Code of Signals'
"
lines ("A"'
"beginning An," which starts out with four stanzas of one-word
to two- and then three-word lines that
Tq:rS),afterwhich the poem expands
to be horizontal
continue for more than forty pages' One imagines duration
conventions
Western
our
How-given
(despite the waterclock and hourglass)'
himself
Palmer
poem?
measure the movement of a vertical

,,(Ryokan,s scroll)" from l's (pronounced

t1:'

One could say that in a poem of one-word lines each

Forwhich purpose the pilots at Ieisure determined


under the breath a
Long courses from port to port as though intoning

cites zukJfsky,s similarly vertical

t:tlfJti:.-

To give this line of thought another screw-turn, recall Zukofsky's assertion


that a true poem expresses the condition of complete rest (presuppositions+, r3).

Plying in apparently perfect contingency


read
Lines whose written total may not be summed or

of reading-to

129

eyes),

andsaysthatthe*u"rrr.ofits"lines"dependsupon"thequantityofindi-

Lang reminds us that


vidual syllable s" (Codeofsignols,254))o Meanwhile Abigail

word is (musically) at rest,


particularly when freed (as they almost always are) from any syntactical relation with words above or below. The opening word lines of "' A' -t 4" seem comparable in their objectivity and repose to the (rather more polysyllabic) words
in 8o Flowers-one of my favorite being "Lavender Cotto n" (CompleteShortpoetry,
326). The poems in 8o Flowers are virtuallyverb-free and so are paratactic rather

than syntactic in their measure; likewise they are free of the words "the" and
"a" that elsewhere Zukofsky says are as substantive as nouns.,, Accordingly,
and in keeping with the paratactic arrangement, syllables in 8o Flowers are predominantly stressed, and to make things even more complex one could just
as comfortably read each line backward as from left to right. The odd thing is
that the poem does not breakwith but rather gives a new turn to Zukofsky,s
"Statement for Poetry," namely that the musicality of poetry has little to do
with prosody's melodic metrical arrangements but derives from the words
themselves. An ear for the nuances of duration is what makes the poet (prepositions+, z3).': Zukofsky's one-word lines and the poems in 8o Flowers are experiments in a seriality in which each word, given its unique internal arrangement
of letters or syllables, is an autonomous duration, that is, a duration that does
not, strictly speaking, possess a before and after but is simply proper to itself:
anentretemps or, in Kugel's terms, "a duration without measure."

Herewearenow
atthebeginning ofthe
unit of the fourth large part of this alk.
More and more
I have the feeling that we are getting
third

nowhere.

*John

Cage, "Lecture on

Nothing"

forzukofskythesinglewordratherthantheline,breath,orstanzaisthebasic

each word is its own


unit of poeiry, and that, as Zukofsky said (to paraphrase)'
,rrrng"..ni-a fact that, unfortunately, frequently falls beneath the threshthat a word is an arold of our attention." A poem of one-word lines suggests

rangementnotsomuchofsyllablesasofletters,andthatasinglelettercanbe
thearbiterofwhatwordaparticularwordbecomesasitarrangesitselfonthe
printed word is rather more
page, which suggests in turn that the written or
of the
.ont"*t-fr.. than the spoken: the printed word "sea" is independent
be'
predicate "he sees" in a way the spoken "sea" would not

Zukofsky's vertical poems suggest a comparison with the British poet Tom
Ace (r97r):

Raworth's

for that
contest

llo
rrrarl

131

130

might
has seen

well

the island

for

ends

it

let

he

go

she

un

it

hand me

mygood man

i'ma

Meanwhile, as often reported, Raworth reads this poem very rapidly, producing the sound-poem effect of a verbal stream rather than the staccato of line

trinity
wins
by length
he said

this line
has no

beginning

no
end
for furniture

that
doesn't

breaks suggested by the printed page.'s (lmagine a speedpoem.) One could say
that the verticality of the poem is compromised both by one's own reading of
it, which is geared to sentence-formation between left and right margins, and
by the poet's pell-mell performance. Relevant to this context are Raworth's
short-duration poems in Big Slipperc 0n: Fourteen Poems-" Attitude," for example, is a two-second poem ("Attitudes must be interesting"),"Belt" is five seconds in duration; others range from fourteen to twenty-five seconds.'6 Compare the following from Raworth's Mouing:
8.o6 PM lune ro, r97o

breathe'a

This page of

"'A'-t4"'but other
seems more discursive, syntactical' than
or listlike:
relatively free of nouns are more elliptical

Ace

prg.r rf,r, rr.

Poeml7

Or recallAram Saroyan's one-word

poems-

eyeye'8

nothing
behind Poetry

-which

cross the threshold into concrete poetry where simultaneity elimi-

nates the sense ofduration, or very nearly so: the peculiariry of"eyeye" is that

look

so

the first three letters spell out the word "eye," as do the last three, but (as in
Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit) only if one's focus moves from the one "eye" to
the other, and back again. So "eyeye" could be said to possess a rhythm after
all.
Ace, for all its top-to-bottom arrangement, is a poem in four "movements":
" in think," "in mind," "in motion," "in place," together with a fare-thee-well ("Bolivia: another end of ace"). In the first a nomad (or, more frequently, a"no I

there

mad") has experiences like the following:

like
or is it
an an

but
why

fore

no

because

maybe

now

if

mad
awakes

133

132

can also

we do not feel

mean

strangeness

PAUSE

he wakes

PAUSE

in terror

from a dream [.
he

. .]

think

Pause: as in obdurqte duration or, as Clark Coolidge


time"-thirtyyears to life in a sequence of caesuras.2o

says, ")bdurotion. Hard

alone
in the honey

combo[...]
see

clearly

Polyrhythms' spatialcounterpart, lack of (regular, traditional) closure as

nomad

generative, tensions restored. lt foregrounds an artificial, constructed

your name

process,

nothing

This pluralism of incident, refusing all packages-not "cut to

new

luxu;iant anarchy, a ful ler flowering or speclficity of internal rhyth ms and


semantic red istributions.

see
as far as

yucatan [. .

-Bruce

.]

no
mad on
grass

breathing
returns to his
senses [. . .]

In the second movement, in which


mr raworth
continues

denatured measure of kinetic shifs, registers of differentiation.

Andre ws,

fit"-a

Paradise and Method: Poetics and Praxis

Steve McCaffery's "Beethoven Sonnets" is an arrhythmic poem about music. lt begins by breaking up a musical term (rollentando) meant to indicate that

time

is

gradually to be made slower:

ralletand

you wagon lit

vir

tuosa vox humana in two notes the


gendarme on thecornerofopus z

the provenance is the


symphony' s resumd the composer of

where

styles is also

to believe

naive

every

compositor of ennui

thing

atl

the

which

ends

codas"

possible

,,nomad

a narrative hovering somewhere (but


each word is a poem unto itselfl, even
Zukofsky,
in
As
apparently there is not).19
phrase
or crack a joke, as at the outset of
when it momentarily stops to coin a

/ meets ace," as if there were

"inmotion":
butwhat
is happening

Naturally the question is: how to comprehend the temporality of McCaffery's


poem, which is a construction that requires us to measure (in pauses) the
spaces that separate its words, syllables, and letters. But because the spaces
are irregular, one confronts the spaces without a scale to time them. And since
the words defeat syntactical arrangements, one's reading, supposing it to be
silent, produces somethingvery like a verbovocovisual poem. The poem turns
lhe reader into a sound poet Iike McCaffery himself in the sense that one has

134

,t it .t) 1:t

,':

il

i.: !'

script to be converted into a kind oftheater, however


private: that is (like one of lackson Mac Low's poems), one has to perform the
poem in order to read it." The space-breaks urge a syncopated performance'

to take the poem

as a

goit was an ear lier song in


patois the tYmPani used suede the
ersatz finale wa s I acuna
d'amore die meistersinger [. . .]
ctapping on his cactus Pant s
choral mausoleum
violin and
monoc hrome in the motherland in

And mind the jokes

communicado

as

You

for strings and wind

father's blue kite for

no more tha n
soiree

from

(Seuen Poges,

the

my

ian

hamilton finla Y it
vowels

135

"''.'.rli

one, two,
three.'3
at the other end are the long lines composed by poet, painter, magician, and circus clown Gerald Burns (d. 1998):

-while

SURREALISM AT MENIL
is a dozen

Cornell boxes including homages

ballet and the renaissance pinball,

broken
panes; all frames ached to have been found, exhibiting themselves like faces in
Dante's

hell's lambent light, blue or pale peach-rose liquids in apothecary bottles never
green or brightyellow,
specimens always white, tinted by pickle. ln an adjacent chamber nail fetishes,

verygood ones,

was

stood (vertically if littte men) furred with nails bigheaded and bent, a few blades,

merelY

violin

One and

via

the

rusted to one

tone like Gillettes in a built-in motel tile slot. We frame it all as art. . . .'+

83-84)

Except for its ludic character, this is not a representative poem of McCaffery's
butonly because no two of his poems look (or sound) alike. As McCaffery says,

"nomadhe has "no steady poetics," rather he is Heraclitean or, as he prefers,


..1
ic,,: have a constant stream of feelings and ideas that constantly change,
modifi and carry into action as techniques for living. what I try to do is undera
stand this flux and develop for myself a thoroughly nomadic consciousness;
mind in constant movement through stoppings and starts, with the corollary
of a language art in permanent revolution, contradiction, paradox, and trans-

form,, (seuen Pages, 35g). As per Kubler, his mind moves without any regular
pattern, producing turbulence, complexity, random forms'

The poem refers to an exhibition of modern and contemporary art at the Menil

Collection Museum in Houston, Texas, particularly some of Joseph Cornell's


boxes, with their ballerinas and Medici portraits set among pinball machines,
among other found objects. Burns's poems are themselves filled with found
objects, his idea being that anything can be a work ofart: all that is required is
that you pick it out from its surroundings-merely taking it up, as one would
a stone or an article at a yard sale, is a kind of framing or staging that recontextualizes the mere thing as an art object ("today in Goodwill / I saw a typed
hornbook text on a wood paddle, under plastic laminate with upholsterer's
tacks" [Shorrer Poems,37)). One virtue of Burns's long lines is they can carry a lot

ofstuff:
FIREPLACE POODLES

What's (Cavell in Arrspace) a proper subject for philosophy, profound question


A line is the smallest

unit of

poem which might collect dust'

you might revise


to what is the difference between a proper subject for philosophy and ditto

*Gerald Bums, "A Line Primer"

art [.
It

So at one end of the scale we have

Robert CreeleY's "A Piece"

one-word poems, and minimalisms like

for

. .]

shouldn't matter what

museum has in it-anything, your kitchen chair

(certainly mine, spray-painted black over black to repair the damage done by
rubber-base enamel,

136

i, r,. :1. al ; i.. i'

rii ! :.i

the bentwood chairs Flora Searcy gave me when lwas poor in Dallas ditto, from
their green and yellow Pea
to catch us up to deco), our Hopi teacup on a bookcase in the living room as iffor
reference.
It's magical to turn and see things [. .

.]

Anderson's exPort tea caddies Iike

three-leaf clovers translated up leaving a plasma trail, lobate body in pewter


suggests a shaPe

to

sculptor's already

sublect, exPloited in the act ofrecognizing it as

subject

(Shorter Poems,' 4t)'s

These lines, despite enjambments, sound like prose, but Burns says that they
are "mixed measures" that can be scanned. ln an essay titled " Lines as Entities"
he writes (of an earlier poem made of seven-beat lines): "You can describe iust
^
about any syllable-stress line ifyou allow a below-line caret [ ] for off-syllable
'
"
beats, the little cupshaped thinry [ ] for light stress, plus acute [ ] and grave
.
AboutLan(AThing
[ ] accents. My own is a measure occupying a felt duration"
guage, 4o). He cites a letter from Donald Hall, who says that he can't see or hear
anything metrical in Burns's lines-"'l don't call it meter. I would only call

meterthatwhich can be reduced to arithmetic"'

(AThingAboutLanguage, +o). To

NOMAD POETRY
ludic

miscellany

mixed measure is "anomalous by definition," but it


is nevertheless a system. "l realize that given Creeley Snyder Olson and always
pound that my favoring of a regular line at all is counter-Modernist. . . . [Nevertheless] I think making the line in that old Yeatsy classroom sense is still nearly

which Burns replies that

f nom steve

mccaff ery

A nomadic consciousness welcomes the unsettled, the debrisured and

disintegrative and feels the need to experience incompatibles together

-Steve

McCaffery, "Poetics: A Statement"

the best thing to be about" (AThingAboutLanguage, 4l-42).


ITSELF DEFINED
I sdw an

6ggshaped stdinless c6ntin6ntaI c6ffeemdker, orgdnic

as

this

p6ppershdker sh6wing
sdxifrage dppositif6tia, fivepetaled it seems, the risual fiit r6seleaf sh6pe, c6ming

to P6ints
(the s6tt is bdrage, sdt before r6al ivy in wicker, unndticed becduse not p6rcelain)
and s6
we s6e the 0npredictabitity

ofwhat c6nstitutes

a sdt (5horrcr Poems,36)

meter sounds a bit like Williams's "variable foot," or say it sounds


about right: the anomaly or exception is extrinsic to the system of which it is,
as Christian Bok says, "secretly intrinsic."'6 And so, as Michael Palmer would
consay, we see the unpredictability, or perhaps the immeasLrrability, of what
Anomqlous

stitutes a measure, or duration.

"The Abstract Ruin" (r97r-78) is one of Steve McCaffery's unfinished long poems, only pieces of which have appeared in print. In a note to the poem Mca weaving (not
exactly together) of "found texts" (SPM, 372-:3).'To which he adds that the
poem is a serialwork-in-process that "is expanding non-developmentally and

Caffery says that his work is not "a composition with words" but

crying out for tighter coherence. lt is self-generating towards a randomness


which may or may not be exciting in itself" (SPM, 372). Randomness (that is,
singularities):wanderingwords ratherthanwords fixed in place. "TheAbstract
Ruin" is, to all appearances, a "nomadic" poem-a poem made of variables
placed in a constant state ofvariation.'

The part of the poem published in the second volume of McCaffery's Seven
"on glossolalia" (SPM, 372), is something like an archaeology

Poges Missing,

that traces the Babel-like dispersal of languages from prehistoric times (and

places)I :l /

138

il

{l}{!ir}t{il'l?i11,*

In the mouth

ofthe

local archaicisms of escarpment

cave, in sPeech

the Grotte du Renne, at Arcy sur Cure


in the valley ofYonne tvvo thousand postholes . . . (SPM, too)
known

as

-through

classical

vertically still in situ

the bronze circle ofCarlisle inside a coin


consonants

of

total weight. (sPM, ro4)

Carlisle is a city in cumbria in the north of England, and likewise the name of
possibly memorialized on a coin, But what might.,magnetic

the end ofTocharian in the documents of Hesiod

a nearby castle,

Herodotus atAthens in an Attic branch


the four tesseras in lonian into the Koine

consonants" attract? (No doubt the attention ofyoung children passing by a


refrigerator door to which magnetic m's and p's are attached.)
Recall the epigraph above-"A nomadic consciousness welcomes the un-

tilt the long migrations through the place names


pronouns in speech apart the bodies ofthe walkers
journeys through Cettiberian destroying Detphi,
Rome, the region of the Galatia. . .

of farmsteads seen
beside magnetic

antiquity-

From Kentum through the Satem

-into

139

settled, the debrisured [unhinged] and disintegrative and feels the need to experience incompatibles together." Mccaffery is a nomadic contriver of verbal

'

catastrophes, not only the usual confusions of words and things, numbers
and tongues (and occasional puns)-

a northern European darkness:

Africa blank spaces

abandoning the sites at

Semantic fadings in South

Rhine, Main, Melibokus and Worms


the Churwelsh heard in Rhaetia, forms of the tongue in

cut

Breton, the Ogham sticks a melting down

countless beavers letters on the faces ofwomen


bodies of type implanted vowels for their movement

time appears in a specific number the word


"thousand" said in seconds the symbol to conundrum

into Germanic time ladders

warped northeastern shores of


Elbe where speech cannot move the deich to the taihun.

fading pictures in the phones a sequence lost


(SPM, to5)

"History," McCaffery says in his note to the Poem, "is essentially a linguistic
thing" (SPM, 37r), but perhaps not simply because it is filled with exotic place
names. Languages wander and split, as when lndo-European divides the number ten into lrish "deich and Gothic "taihun." lmagine the state of things if
numbers could not survive the mortality of their incarnations.3
Likewise "The Abstract Ruin" is itself a dispersion of fragmentary epi-

phenomena-for example, "a sleep-inducing syntax" (SPM, ror). Which might


be a tautolory, since syntax is made of

repetitions, or at all events it assimilates

words into rational and predictable formations. A syntax of surprises could not
proceed without interruption. Another fragment gives us "the word badbh /

committed to writing" (SPM, roz). Badbh (from an Old lrish word for "crow") is
the name of an lrish goddess who can suck the warmth out ofyour body. Possibly committing her name to writing is a magicaI form of self-defense. Or, again:
"a janiform tense / of pastoral declension" (SPM, ro3). Whatever is "janiform"

might proceed as follows: bucolicus,bucolica,


it might be a vernacular refusal of courtly love. Meanwhile,

is two-faced. A pastoral declension


bucolicum. Or

out

toliveon...

-but

especially the demonic inventions of acoustic verse:

hebdomenda ennenenta
yan tan tethera oethera pimp five
six sethera lethera hovera covera dik ten

eleven yan

dik tan a dik-bumpit fifteen

sixteen yan a bumpit-figitt twenty (SpM, ro6)

Not surprisingly, nomads appear in "The Abstract Ruin," practicing their


ebb and

flow-

They had never known a city

only page and shifting pronouns street gangs


through the utterances and times
when they were men with voices
limbs in common with

humanity

40

t:'r; l

;:,

I.ii :, ii ; i.

i:

but on the frontiers ofthe verb


rhey stopped (StUt, ro5)

lmagine a philosopher saying, "The limits of my language are the limits of no


man's land," where words come to an end. The nomads, if that is what they
are, are elsewhere, maybe "on their way to language" (derWegzurSprache), or
waiting restlessly on a verbal frontier for some kind of Pentecostalevent:

"The Elsewhere of Meaning" is the title of a brief essay by McCaffery on lappements d ls lune, a collection of eight short poems by the Quebecois poet and

playwright Claude Cauvreau Qgz5-7r), one ofwhich reads

as

follows:

n16m atila atiglagla 916 6mect tufachiraglau dgondz-apanoir tufirupipldthatgouloumeirector ezdannz ezddoucrdmouacptteu pif-legoulem 6z nionfan nimarulta

apiviavovioc tutul Iatranerre ddgwobz choutss striglanima uculpt treflagamon4

They were the settlers here the pioneers

McCaffery describes this poem as "an unmediated inscription of the materi-

who took

ality of the letter" (Nl, r7r). This materialiry enhils the idea that none of the
letters is to be spoken or heard as a phoneme but is just meant to be seen:
"thelappements are decidedly not sound poems; they are texts to be understood
primarily as a writing, a differentialorganization and dissemination of sound
under the specific conditions of inscription and within an extended theory of
the image" (NI, r7r). "lmage" here is to be taken in the surreal sense of something retinal that has ceased to be ofanything. Gauvreau was a member of the
automatistes, a Canadian offshoot ofthe French surrealists, and he developed a
theory of the "explorational image," in which (as McCaffery figures it) "a total
transformation of the elements occurs to such a degree that they are no longer
recognizable" (Nl, r73). Adorno's nonidenticalthing (ofwhich we do not know
what it is) is once more in play (AT, rr4).
The paradox that interests McCaffery is that letters that fail to combine into
words are nevertheless not meaningless, since it is impossible (or self-contradictory) for a letter to be unintelligible: we know it, whichever one it is, for

page for their land. . .

Their speech a common code


ofsneezes gargles
a

curious wink ofthe eye.

They hold hands when they leave


and on the margins of some shoreline
kneel for rninutes in

private speech.

lfa sky turns grey their hands


go cold and

follow

their parents to the station.


When the grarnmar arrives they come back
in six weeks for three hours
at a

time.

They stay outside words

in warm ink or

milk

and soon l1yiys


at land or speech

or in America. (SpM, rog_9)

lmpossible to construct a narrative thatwould contain these (or any of the


poem's) lines, which are full of anomalies, as "When the grammar arrives ' ' '":
imagine such an arrival-no doubt of a regiment (recall the famous etymologr of syntax). Or imagine arriving at speech, as if at a crossroads or crisis; or
at an American frontier, which requires one to begin all over again: itineration
becomes itineration.

what it is, if not always, given the odd context, what it is for. Thus/ oppements are
not just scribbles; rather, as McCaffery says, the letters "serve as graphic indicarions not entirely contained within the category of 'meaning' but constantly
suggesting it as a juxtaposed elsewhere" (Nl, r75). Recall Mallarm6's conception of the alphabet as a system that contains within itself the metaphysical

book-an idea that lorge Luis Borges elaborates or parodies


in his story "The Libraryof Babel," where the universe is a "total library" whose
"shelves contain all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographpossibility of all

ical symbols (whose number, though vast, is not infinite); that is, everything
that can be expressed, in all languages."s
Meanwhile the word " jappement" is onomatopoetic, beingthe sound a small
dog makes (yapping at the moon), but its English equivalent also refers to talk
that is not so much meaningless as idle or endless (going nowhere).6 Heidegger'sGerede comes to mind, "idle talk" being thatwhich everyone has heard
before because it is in everyone's mouth: buzz or chatter that is passed along
without thinkirrg./ ldle talk is perfectly intelligible, and utterly insignificant.

143

142
Heidegger says that it is "the possibility of understanding everything without
previously making the thing one's own" (Being andTime, zr3). Heidegger's dos

to recognize these viral capacities of language and to see how they were fundamentally connected to the referring function of words when a word is granted the

oblivious with respect to language, to which Dosein alone can give its ear.
Of course if we follow this line of thought the title of Gauvreau's poem becomes ironic, or-much to the same point-his poem becomes satirical with
respect to talk, whose distinctive feature is its transparency, its inability to
bring anyone up short; whereas Jappements dlqlune is, among other things, unspeakable, not to say inaccessible except across an extended aesthetic distance

the viral activity that will eventually destroy it. (SPM, r99)

Mon is

where it reposes sui generis-something other than even a Lettriste Poem, to


which it bears some resemblance without being a member of the family: in
other words, singular and irreducible, notwithstanding the fact that, as an 0urhor's composition, it is entirely superfluous, since it already exists on one of

the shelves in Borges's universal library, where it would be virtually indistinguishable from among the vast number of typographical variants that would
naturally surround it.
McCaffery's "Three Stanzas" (rgZS) is worth citing in this context:
i.

pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis

ii.
aequeosalinocalcalinoceraceoaluminosocupreovitriolic
ii i.

lopadotemachoselachogaleokranioleipsanodrimhypot-

rimmatosilphioparaomelitokatakechymenokichlepikossyphophattoperisteralektryonoptekephalliokigklopeleiolagooiosiraiobaphetraganopterygon

(SP

M, zzz)

It would take some practice to turn this into a sound poem, but doubtless
McCaffery could do

it. Unlike

Gauvreau's lappements, the letters that make up

"Three Stanzas" occasionally coalesce into words ("microscopic," "volcano,"


"vitriolic"), although the last stanza is headed elsewhere, perhaps toward a
possible world in which "traganopterygon" is a many-sided illusion.

McCaffery's "Apropriopriapus: Prefatory Notes on Stein & the Language Hygiene Program" 0gZz-lZ) calls our attention to a disorder known as "semi-

vision":
semivision

power to signi! it's given the liberty to assume a role as active virus extending semantically along a trajectory out of itself into exterior (nonverbal and therefore
uncontaminated) reality the world that it "verbalizes" becomes unwitting host to

The idea of a "language virus" belongs to William S. Burroughs. ln "The Ameri-

can Non-Dream" 0S6S) Burroughs proposed that languages are essentially


forms of social control, but some are worse than others. Modern syllabic
languages are more insidious than earlier hieroglyphic ones, because, being
more phonetic than visual, theyget inside us more easily and take us over more
completely. "An essential feature ofthe Western control machine," Burroughs
writes, "is to make language as non -pictoriolas possible."s As ifthe transparency
of language made it more difficult to resist it, whence it would follow that the

destruction of transparency would be an achievement of freedom, or at any


rate a form of cure, which is what Burroughs soughtwith his dada-like practice
of cut-ups: breaking up texts and randomly recombining their elements.
(Deleuze and Guattari: "Language is made not to be believed but to be
obeyed. . . . Words are nottools, yetwe give children language, pens, and notebooks as we give workers shovels and pickaxes. A rule of grammar is a power
marker before it is a syntactical marker. The order does not refer to prior significations or to a prior organization of distinctive units. Quite the opposite.
lnformation is only the strict minimum necessary for the emission, transmission, and observation of orders as commands."e)
However, McCaffery introduces a modification into this line of thinking:
language does not just infect the hosts who have internalized it; its predica-

tions consume the world of things (and people) as well. Recall Maurice Blanchot's critique of Hegel's dialectic in which the naming of anything, even mere
reference to it, is likened to murder:
For me to be able to say, "This

woman," I must somehow take her flesh-and-blood


reality away from her, cause her to be absent, annihilate her. The word gives me
the being, but it gives it to me deprived of being. The word is the absence of that
being, its nothingness, what is left of it when it has lost being-the very fact that
itdoesnotexist....lnatextdatingfrombeforeThePhenomenologyHegel...writes:
"Adam's first act, which made him master of the animals, was to give them names,

that is, he annihilated them in their existence (as existing creatures)." Hegel
means that from that moment on, the cat ceased to be a uniquely real cat and be-

is

adjectival retinal

illusion-a typographically

ingfromcontinuedexposuretothelangttagevirtrs.

indtrccd condition aris-

llowst('illw;tstltclirstperson

came an idea

as

well. (WF, 323-24)

144

145

:;'

As carriers

of language, we are the instruments of its devastation: "When

speak," Blanchot says, "death speaks in me. My speech is a warning that at this
very momentdeath is loose in theworld, thatithas suddenlyappeared between
me and the being I address. . . . Death alone allows me to grasp what I want to

attain: it exists in words

as

as

well-we

can

nevertheless save things from this work of negation, and ourselves from complicity, by turning (in writing) against transparency:
My hope lBlanchot says] lies in the materiality of language, in the fact that words
are things, too, are a kind ofnature. . . . Just now the reality ofwords was an obstacle. Now, it is my only chance. A name ceases to be the ephemeral passing of

nonexistence and becomes a concrete ball, a solid mass of existence; language,


abandoning the sense, the meaning which is all it wanted to be, tries to become
senseless. Everything physical takes precedence: rhythm, weight, mass, shape,
and then the paper on which one writes, the ink, the book. (wF ' 327)

Much of literature, to be sure, is "turned toward the movement of negation


by which things are separated from themselves and destroyed in order to be
known, subjugated, and communicated" (WF, 33o). Blanchot thinks of this as

literature that inhabits the light of day illuminated by Hegel's Spirit-most


novels, or any "meaningful prose" (WF, 332), or indeed the whole Aristotelian
line of mythos and mimesis. But poetry of a certain kind (Blanchot will mention Ma[[arm6 and Francis Ponge) "allies itself with the realiry of language, it
makes language into matter without contour, content without form, a force
that is capricious and impersonal and says nothing, reveals nothing, simply
announces-through its refusal to say anything-that it comes from the
night and will return to the night" (WF, 33o)'
McCaffery says that Gertrude Stein "was the first to recognize these viral capacities of language"; she was in any case among the first to put into play the
"Language Hygiene Program," and she did so in a way that anticipated Blanchot. Her idea was to restore the singularity of things (and people) by eliminating (largely if not entirely) the use of nouns: "And so inTender Buttons and then
on and on I struggled with the ridding myself of nouns, I knew nouns must go
in poetry as they had gone in prose if anything that is everything is to go on
meaning something"("Poetry and Grammar" [WL, r+S]). As for prose, "Van or
Twenty Years After: A Second Portrait ofCarl Van Vechten" (r923) contains a few

nounsTwenty years after, as much as twenty years after in as t.ltttch as twcn ty years after,

after twentyyears and so on. lt is it is it is it is.

it

and as if it. or as if it.

for and as if it.


If it was to be a prize a surprise if it was to be a surprise to realize, if it was
if itwereto be, was itto be. Whatwas itto be. ltwas to bewhatitwas.
More as if it. As more As more, as if it. And if it. And

And it was. 5o it was. As it was. As it is. ls it

the only way they can have meaning" (WF, 325)'

However-here is Blanchot's main point, and McCaffery's

If it and as if it, if it or as if it, if it is as if it, and it is as if

so and so as
Keep

as

to be

it as. It is and as it is and as it is. And

itwas.

it in sight all right.

Not to the future but to the fuchsia. (WL, zz8)

since the nouns are for playing rather than naming or portraying or say-

-but
ing something

of someone, the language virus is contained or dormant, and

Carl Van Vechten is saved. More radical is the later

poem,

Stcnzos in Meditation:

STANZA XXIX

What lwish to say is this of course


It is the same of course
Not yet oIcourse
But which they

will not only yet

Ofcourse.
This brings me back to this of course.

It is the same of course it is the same


Now even not the name
But which is it when they gathered
A broad black butterfly is white

which

with this.

Which is which which of course


Did which of course
Why lwish to say in reason is this.
When they begin and I begin and win

Win which of course.


It is easy to say easily.
That this is the same in which I do not do not like the

name

Which wind of course. (SM, r8r-82)

Notice that a full-fledged noun, when it appears, suffers a kind of de-nominais white with this." White with what? you may

tion: "A broad black butterfly

that is, not a functional


pointer but a singular word passing freely in a medium of white space, but allowing nevertheless for a certain ludic reading: "What I wish to say is this of
course," as opposed to thotof course. "lt is the same of course," this one and
on ly oFcourse, because not each ofcourse is identical to every other.

ask, but the this is, like the poem itself, a word-event,

146

il

{i${r+}r'*r,lti,t!ri

147

word) breaks the routine of repetition. Moreover, emphasis is what replaces


syntax as the way to put words together. Thus language is freed from its preda-

down of systems is invariably comic-or, as McCaffery would prefer, ludic (a


word, according to the 0ED, that was first used in English in r94r, in a dictionary of psychiatric terms, and which refers to the pointless expenditure of energy;lunaticcomesquicklyto mind, alongof coursewith ludicrous);o Of course,
Samuel Beckett's dilapidated characters are canonically comical-they are,
after all, clownlike-but unlike one of Beckett's narrators the speaker in the
text above seems like one of philosophy's disengaged obsewers of "the passing show""-so disengaged as to be undisturbed by what passes (impossibly,
incongruously) for a fact, as when "Eighty-six windows show the noun to be a
house" (TS, z9). Characteristically, McCaffery's text is a fabric of category mistakes- "That then is the cheese you asked for in linguistics" (TS, :Z).
Taking a cue from the poem's title, we could imagine a world in which
Hegel's system begins malfunctioning, so that instead of working dialectically to produce a coherent totality, words and things, concepts and events,
grammar and narrative, run afouI of one another. Each segment of "Hegel's

tory function of predication-and so are we.

Eyes" seems to explore some version of misrule, as in "Collateral Mimesis

Here we need to consult Gertrude stein at one of her most philosophical


points: "l am inclined to believe there is no such thing as repetition" (WL, too).
Each "which" in "Which is which which of course" is different because each
receives a different emphasis (which of the two "whiches" is the "which" you
mean to say?). Speaking of her portraits she writes: "lf this existence is this

thing is actually existing there can be no repetition. There is only repetition


when there are descriptions being given of these things not when the things
themselves are actually existing and this is therefore how my portrait writing
began" (WL, roz). Stanzssin Medit0tion aPPlies this same principle of singularity
to words, and in particular to words other than nouns-although it is also true
that nouns for stein (as for her mentor, william James) are not to be thought
of as concepts or categories but as loose terms susceptible to shifting like pronouns. ln any event, emphasis that changes from word to word (whatever the

with

Subordinated Ambiguity," which offers us "Contradictory formats throughout


each semantic space":
As a hygienic practice, McCaffery's Poems might be said to explore forms of
impossibiliry (supposingwe actually know what this word means, orwhat condi-

tions bringthe impossible into play). Agood textforstudy in this regard might
be McCaffery'sTheoriesofsediment (r99r), which contains a number of poems in
prose whose words are almost always, in various ways, at cross-purposes with
the sentences that combine them-for example, "Hegel's Eyes," whose first

segment ("The Code of System Four") begins as follows:


we entered a city consisting entirely of grey thursday mornings. But the verb enter seems partly inappropriate plus appropriate itself seems wrong. So it would
be wrong to say the city itsetfcould be entered though all its thursdays are grey
and though grey itself consists entirely of its mornings. Today then is the morning
when the verb to enter will seem wrong. Today as the day plus all the inappropriate parts themselves that

still seem proPer.

So we can leave the city alone. Plus by ourselves. And having reached another
city on a day like any other day we can stoP to say we can drop in on a day whose

entered a
verb which seems wrong and wrong in the entirely correct sense of wrong. Wrong
being wrong and day being day. Hence tautological' Plus inappropriate' (TS, rr)

morning registers an off-white mood entirely. Plus we can

say we have

Proper names: withheld. Prolepsis on demand at horizon analogue aperture.

Clinamen remains classic but developing hydro-concave algorithms as accredited


mutisms. SociaI systems accessed via prior deletions. Amalgamated sememes

incorporating zero referential certainty. Governing code word: Voltaire. Pronoun


connection: siamese. Errant synthesis as fo[[ows:
tough thea eaditor auph tie foughnotipick
jolonal: Syrhh, eye obzewe yew proepeaux
two introwduice ay nue sissedem ov righting
bigh whitch ue eckspres oanly theigh sowneds
anned not thee orthoggrafey oph they wurds

butt igh phthink ugh gow to fare inn


cheighnjing owr thyme-onird alphahbeat (TS, r8)
Read these last seven lines aloud and you will notice that they comprise a letter to an editor complaining against a project to introduce, in defiance of the

ofwriting.'' Perhaps such a project,


(or
not), would be meant to avert the following
whatever it might look like
law of noncontradiction, a nonvisual form
(" Discrete

Taxonomic Focus")

Assume this as a poetic principle: The breakdown of human beings is (variably)

Entomologically a class of non-reliable bodies incorporating energy reversal

tragic, pathetic, mental, mechanical, inevitable, atr<l so lortlr, l;ttt the break-

systems: puns, palindromes, chiasma, fissures, verbo-voco body traps through

149

148
ecophonesis, pragmatographia triggered to koiros ("il momento buono") concubinage of dissimilar lard-packs or polyptoton through teguments inducing temporary cacosyntheton (TS, z4)
An energy reversal system would be, for example, a species of echolalia, as are,

in their different ways, puns, palindromes, chiasma, among other figures of


speech (like polyptotons); and of course reverberations and repercussions
come to mind, as well as the endless cacophenomena that bedevil one's life
and times, and which pragmatographia (writing down actions and events)
would record-if possible. The difficulty is that the rule of identity that is said
to drive the Geistesgeschichte on its way has been suspended, whence identity is
indistinguishable from entropy:
Competitions of speed and the body of police coercive and compulsive, efficacious and effective, beginning at the same particular place and leading to the
monotonous, uniform, unchanged and identical same dot. Lines alongwhich the
people move do not begin and are said to end at the monotonous, uniform, unchanged and identicaI same dot with the same weariness conforming to the same
rule unmodified undiversified sufferance and exhibition ofno change no fluctua-

tion from the previous state ofconsideration.

(TS, z5)

which a philosopher might respond that McCaffery's poetry reverses the


logicalenergy that holds together our conceptualschemes, turning thinglike
words loose in (on?) the world, producing an infernal (or maybe purgatorial)
To

the boxes they represent. The word in the bottle "box" for instance is a pursey
stunted disheveled potbeltied gnome. The word for oak is tall lean and taciturn.
Some emerge slowly from their boxes as from sentences. They can't be dcscribcd.
As they come out they stand in a circle around two children as near as thcy ciln
to the box in which they were born. Words smoking pipes. Words ad justing cye '
hobbling along in a pair of old wooden shoes. Onc nran is blirrtl.

glasses. A word

Impossibilities. (TS, r66)

"Words smoking pipes. Words adjusting eyeglasses": categorica lly itrr possiblc.
The basic philosophical problem (or defect) of language, however, is tlrat it

canextendthelimitsofthepossibleasfaras-well,asfarasthclirnitsol Ilorges's universal library


ways

(limits that are evidently inaccessible). One olMcCal'[ery's


is the concept ofparagrant that he

ofarticulatingthis fact about language

found in a footnote to lulia Kristeva's Reyolution in Po eticLanguage'. "A text is paragrammatic, writes Leon S. Roudiez, 'in the sense that its organization of words
(and their denotations), grammar, and syntax is challenged by the infinite
possibilities provided by letters or phonemes combining to form networks
ofsignifications not accessible through conventionaI reading habits.""3 The
task of poetry (or anyhow McCaffery's task) is simply to expand these unconventional"networks of significations"-these limits of the possible-in every
direction (until, at last, the limits give way).

chaos, as in the title poem, "Theory of Sediment":


Welked moons through portage flowing. Stone surged pestilence is singed. Foul
thicket's rabblement burnt in. There is a height a felness would affray. Waste mea-

foot to seeming head-craig


handiworks. Wine-wind trussed opened cleft from sea-deep angry leak. Root-stop
in mood and muled-swart suture. Head-hinders shouldering a heaved on-nape.
Down glow and pierce flank tributary lair. Flint-pan to ice. Shard cities sink. Eachother once as eye poised hitl is set. Mustered by wile. Flood herded tread infran-

sures tolled or bleak cast-logs on ground. Stretched

gible on nouns. (TS,93)

"fabric of category mistakes." One could make


the case that the category mistake is the keystone of McCaffery's Poetics, particularly in the way that words and things exchange their modes of existence.
"Breakthrough Nostalgia" provides a compelling example:
I described "Hegel's Eyes" as a

"Poetry is the subject of the poem," Wallace Stevens says.'a A recent collection of McCaffery's, Slighdy Left of Thinking, contains a section entitled "Ghost
Poems," several of which are poems about poems that we cannot actually

read-not secondhand poems,

exactly, but poems at secondhand;

This first poem occupies a single page; there are twenty-eight lines, u9 words, r6

commas, 8 full stops, z sets of quotatlons enclosing r7 words, and zr different alphabetic characters. It seems to be a parody of Cicero's presentation on Academic
Skepticism, but it's only partly written in Latin. One line proposes clouds are actually contradictions o[the sky and that good deeds are best explained against a
background of evil. The poem's dominant sense is acoustic, closely followed by

A long and drawn-out rustle shakes the leaves and bottles. The oldest and most
stately boxes open up to make way for words which each of them contains. The

the olfactorial and visual. l'm uncertain why the reference to Aristophanes fo[lows a brief allusion to the geometric probabiliqr that hens'eggs can be naturally
geodesic, or why an unnamed subject tries to find two identical leaves in a forest
before lunch in the Caf6 Pyren6es. My favorite line is the eighth that ends with the
word "indiscernible." My least favorite is the single line that reads "the square's

appearance of these words differs according to thc ap;rcrrrttcc;rnd character ol'

two sides." (SL, 39)

,r: ;+

,:i

:.i: ;:

i: i

;':, ::

rr il

151

Of course, following the moral of "The Language Hygiene Program," to describe a poem is to kill it-hence (plausibly or possibly) the title: "Ghost Poems." As if what we had in the text above were not a description but a destruc-

maybe it just has something fishy about it, like the line about "the square's two

tion. Alternatively, "ghost" poems are conceptual poems, or poems in spirit


only: a conceptuaI poem, by definition, has only to be thought; a reading of it

odors can (literally) be committed to writing.


Unfortunately no philosopher of possible worlds would admit such a possibility, since (theoretically) possible worlds can only be made of true proposi-

would be superfluous,

failure of possibility,

as

all things are.

Recall one of the poems from Dan Graham's "Schema March 1966":

r
z
rrgz % sq.
337 % sq.

ems.
ems.
1

nit

adjectives
adverbs
area not occupied by type
area occupied by type

sides." But perhaps in the possible world in which this poem exists, and in defiance of Wittgenstein's famous remark about describing the smell of coffee,

tions, meaning that in all possible worlds propositions must abide by the law
of noncontradiction-in other words, like married bachelors, no rwo-sided
squares are possible anywhere. But impossibilities of this logical sort are what
set Mccaffery's poetry in motion, taking us elsewhere. Let these lines, from
"Teachable Texts," stand for the ludic whole:

columns

Okay

conjunctions

but who are you?

i'm wrong

depression oftype into surface ofpage

in this respect seduction is potential

gerunds

the Copernican shifter shifts at

infinitives

snip hocter prop with ferocity in traces

letters ofthe alphabet

but i left speech in the corrida

lines

supposing friends were me as entities in puzzle shapes

mathematical symbols

magna civitas magna solitude

38

nouns

the soul versus destiny in a sort ofacademic

52

numbers

sloppiness gone off.

participles

Page

in the precise way puce relates to Schoenberg

363
27
2

8%x5

tiger is as flat

as a

page

r7%x22%

paper sheet

pages

offset cartridge

paper stock

and look at their prey. (CW, Bz)

propositions

pronouns

pt.

type size

Press Roman

type face

10

59
1

words
words capitalized
words italicized

57

words not capitalized

words not italicized'5

One could conceivably flesh outsuch a schema (de-conceptualize it) bywriting

something to match its measures. McCaffery's poem is perhaps more conceptual or ghostlier than Graham's in virtue of its "olfactoria l" dimension, un less
of course this only means that the poem, being dca<|, has bcgutr to stirrk, or

will

turn the way lions turn

153
minds us, "lurks in art, awaiting ever recurring opportunities to spring forth"
fAT,239]). Form is the transformation of what is given into somethingother,
that is, something unreal, nonidentical, outside the grasp of concepts, categories, distinctions, not to mention purposes, functions, or positions in any
standing order of things. This radical exteriority is what Adorno means by the
autonomy of art. But the paradox of autonomy is that it leaves us with almost
nothing to say about what a work of art is. lt is possible that a purely autonomous work would be a nonentity, as if autonomy were a limit-concept rather
than a positive property of art. The end of art-"'To make things of which we
do not know what they are"' (AT, rr4)-is antinomic, like my two epigraphs.
This indeterminacy of art is, of course, the premise that initiates and, indeed, regulates Adorno's AestheticTheory: "lt is self-evident that nothing con-

ON THE GONUNDRUM
OF FORM AND MATERIAL

cerning art is self-evident anymore" (AT, r). The self-estrangement of the work
of art (as we have known for more than a century) is the distinctive feature of
modernism: nothing, "not even the aesthetically central concept of the law
of form, names the essence of art" (AT, 7). The modernistwork is precisely

that for which there is no general concept as to what counts as art, which
also means that there are no criteria that could exclude anything as a work of
art. The difficulty is that it is precisely the thesis of aesthetic nominalism (in

aesthetic

adorhots

little as art
with form.

As

-Theodor

is

Ado

theonY

which onythin g goes as a work of art) that Adorno wants to contest (perhaps
without hope of defeating it). Marcel Duchamp's name is nowhere mentioned

to be identified by any other element, it is simply identical

in AestheticTheory, but there is no doubt that Duchamp's role would be that of


Adorno's chief nemesis, precisely because what Adorno seems to reject is the

rno,

very idea that a work of art can simply be a "found object," that is, something

AestheticTheory

For no select category, not even the aesthetically central concePt

ofthe

law of form, names the essence of art and suffices to judge its products'

-Theodor
My

Ad o

rno,

AestheticT heo ry

ambition in what follows

is

to elucidate Adorno's conception of

form-or,

antinomy orcontradiction suggested by my


two epigraphs from Aestheri cTheory. Adorno leaves no doubt that form is a principal concept of his aesthetics: art is, whatever else it is, "identicaI with form"
(AT, r4o).' But Adorno was, as we know, a dialectical rather than an analytic
thinker; that is, his practice was not to clarifr concepts but to put them into
play in a movement in which nothing is abte to appear except in virtue of what

failingthat,

at least to examine the

it is not., And so form is never a concept that stands on its own; it is always
mediated-for example, by the artist's assorted materials of construction, or
by the artist's subjectivity, or for alI of that by the modern world in all of its
administered, commodified, not to say popular renditiotts (Kitsch, Adorno re-

llti)

merely empirical or a mere social product, like the urinal of Duchamp's Fountoin. Hence Adorno's apparent complaint against the more extreme forms of
modernism: "Actionpainting,l'artinformelle, and aleatoricaIworks [in which the]
aesthetic subject exempts itself from the burden of giving form to the contin-

gent material it encounters, despairing of the possibility of undergirding it,


and instead shifts the responsibiliry for its organization back on the contingent material itself. . . . [ln] its literalness fcontingent material] is alien to art"

(N,

zzr).2

The notion of "giving form to the contingent material" is all very well, but
unfortunately what Adorno means by this is no more self-evident than is the
nature of art. What exactly is his idea of form, and-while we are at it-is there

anything in his theory that applies specifically to literary or poetic form? Before I conclude I want to take a look atAdorno's essay on paratactic form in
Holderlin's late hymns, as well as his essays on two modern Cerman figures
scldonr studied outside of Germany, Rudolf Borchardt(r877-t945), an early or

154

!r

quasi-modernist poetwhose politics and poetics are Perhaps beyond clarification, and Hans G. Helms (b. tg3z), a poet, musician, and avant-garde performance artist who flourished after world war Il, and who also happened to be
one ofAdorno's students at Frankfurt. ln these essays, in contrast to Aesthetic

Adorno gives us some extended examples of the complex relationship


between form and materiality; that is, he addresses specifically the idea that
in poetry language is not made of concepts but is (relativgly) free of the forms
and conventions of discursive intelligibility, as if the task of form were to ma-

Theory,

terialize language (and thereby free it from utility or systems of exchange). lndeed, Adorno never descended more deeply into darkest modernism than he
did in these essays (which show how wrong it is to think that Adorno accepted

only Proust, Kafka, loyce, and Beckett into his modernist canon).a As Adorno
puts it in the essay on Hcilderlin, in poetry language "becomes a constitutive
dissociation" whose paratactic forms "evade the logical hierarchy of a subordinating syntax" (NL, z:t3o1t).lt is this insubordination or evasion of hierarchies (and therefore of totality) that is perhaps a key to Adorno's conception of
form.
that Adorno's way of thinking is dialectical (in its own eccentric
way) rather than analytic. What this means is that (among other things) his
conception of form is not formal, at least not in the classical or Aristotelian
sense of an artifact reposing in the uni{, integrity, and harmony of its disparate elements. On the contrary Adorno calls each of these classical terms (unity, integriry, harmony) into question, or perhaps one should say: he subjects
each of them to a dialectical reversal or determinate negation. Consider these
passages (where the emphasis in each case is mine):
I have said

What is heterogeneous in artworks is immanent to them: It is that in them that


opposes unity and yet is needed by unity if it is to be more than a pyrrhic victory
over the unresisting. That the spirit of artvyork is not to be equated with their immanent nexus-the arrangement of sensuous elements-is evident in that rhey in
nowa)t constitutethatgapless uniE, that type ofform to which aesthetic reflection has
falsely reduced them. (AT, 89)
Dissonanceisthetruthaboutharmony. . . . Art, whatever its material, has always desired

dissonance. (AT,

tto)

Form is the nonviolent synthesis ofthe diffuse that nevertheless presewes it [the
diffuse] as what it is in its divergences and contradictions, and for this reason form
is actually an unfolding oftruth. A posited unity, it constantly suspends itselfas
such; essential to it is that it interrupts itself through its other iust as
its cohe r ence is th at it

d o

es

ot

coh ere.

(AT, I 43)

the essence

of

155

Art that makes the highest claim compels itself beyondformostotality ondintothefragmentary.

(N, Ul)

Artwork

. . . that negate meaning must also necessarily be disrupted in their unity; this is the function of montage, which disavows unity through the emerging
disparateness of the parts at the same time that, as a principle of form, it affirms
unity. . . .[Inmontagethe]negailonofsynthesisbecomesaprincipleofform.
(AT, r5a-55)

And once more: "The articulation, bywhich the artwork achieves its form, also
always coincides in a certain sense with the defeat of form" (N , 46).
The analytic thinker lives or dies by the law of noncontradiction. But not

Adorno. In his case dialectical thinking is governed by a rule of nonidentity


and, as Hauke Brunkhorstsuggests, bythe transgressionorliquification ofboundaries.s "To proceed dialectically," Adorno says in his Negotive Dialectics, "is to
think in contradictions," which is to say according to a "logic of disintegration" that aims at the breakdown of every sort of totality; or, to put it in a
slightly different way, it is thinking whose goal is to avoid closure, resolution,
or synthesis (ND, raa-a5).6 This is how I read him anyway: myAdorno is a serial
thinker (using the word "serial" in its poetic rather than twelve-tone musical
sense) whose desire is to stay in motion (that is, to keep pace with the history
of art).2 Adorno's motto, "The whole is the false" (MM, 5o), turns Hegel on his
head (and overturns Hegel's aesthetics, with its end-of-art thesis).
To gain some purchase on Adorno's paradoxes, we might begin by observing that, in keeping with dialectical procedures, the work of art for Adorno is
as much an event as it is an object; that is, it is somethingwhose mode of existence is fluid, dynamic, and irreducible to the thinglike condition in which it
is nevertheless constituted as a work. And this is the case in at least two senses,
namely with respect to our relation to the work (that is, in our experience of it)
but also objectively in terms of the work's relationship to itself.
For example, it is in the nature of the work (as a fact of its autonomy) to
resist our efforts to objectifr it either empirically or conceptually, which is
why nominalism can never be defeated (Adorno, to add one more paradox to
the inventory, is an antinominalist who says: "Art has no universal laws" [AT,
3o8]).8 ln the section of AestheticTheoryr on "semblance and Expression" (Schein
und Ausdruck) Adorno writes:
When artworks are viewed under the closest scrutiny, the most objectivated paintings metamorphose into a swarming mass and texLs splinter into words. As soon

one imagines having a firm grasp on the details of an artvyork, it dissolves into
the indeterminate and undifferentiated, so mediated is it. This is the manifestation of aesthetic semblance in the structure of artworks. Under micrological study,

as

157

156
the particular-the artwork's vital element-is volatilized: its concretion vanishes. The process, which in each work takes objective shaPe, is opposed to its fixation
as something to Point to, and dissolves back from whence it came. (AT, tot)

itwere in the nature of the irftegrated work to disintegrate uPon contact.


What Adorno has in mind, of course, is that the work of art is not an intentionAs if

al object in any phenomenological sense; that is, it is not strictly a phenomenon at all but is, on the contrary an illusion of objectification. This is what
"aesthetic semblance" means: "Artworks become appearances lErscheinung),
in the pregnant sense of the term-that is, the appearance of an other [eines
Anderen]-when the accent falls on the unreality of their own reality. Artworks
have the immanent character of being an act, even if they are carved in stone,

and this endows them with the quality of being something momentary and
sudden fPlittzliches). This is registered by the feeling of being overwhelmed
when faced with an important work. . . . Under Patient contemplation artworks begin to move" (nf, Zg).As Brunkhorst has pointed out, "Adorno has a
strong predilection for romantic metaphors of fluidity and amorphousness,
of the diffuse and the impulse which overwhelms the ego" Qhe ActualiE of Ador'
n0,46).
However, this mobiliry or instability of the work, its epiphanic aPpearance,
is not just an event in our subjective experience; it is what the work is in itself:
The artwork is a process essentiatty in the relation of its whole and Parts. without
being reducible to one side or the other, it is the relation itselfthat is a process of

no one knows how to interpret.)


However one figures it, forAdorno the modernistwork is one that is divided
against itself or, to put the matter dialectically, it is constituted as a struggle
between "the law of form" (AT, 3) or the "rationality of construction" (AT, 35)
and the anarchic resistance of material to any effort to bring it under control;
and the idea is not to resolve this struggle or overcome resistance but to register it as the truth (the truth-content, or WahrheitsgeholQ of the work of art.
We could call Adorno's theory an aesthetics of resistance, but perhaps this is
say very much, since "resistance" is the one of the clich6s of modernism, as Iohanna Drucker has recently argued.s Perhaps itwould be more apt to
think of it as an aesthetics of freedom, or of the agitated and unruly. The task
of art is to preserve what is refractory to the formal conditions that make art

not to

preserve what resists the crueky of art ("The purer the form and
the higher the autonomy of the works," Adorno says, "the more cruel they are.
. . . What art in the broadest sense works with, it oppresses" [AT, 5o]). As Adorno says very early in Aestheti cTheory (in a passage that contextualizes the second

possible-to

epigraph for this chapter):


In artworks, the criterion of success is twofold: whether they succeed in integrating thematic strata and details into their immanent law of form and in this integration at the same time mointain what resists it and the figures that occur in the process of
integration. Integration as such does not assure quality; in the history ofart, integration and quality have often diverged. For no single select category, not even

the aesthetically central concept ofthe law ofform, names the essence ofart and
suffices to judge its products. Essential to art are defining characteristics that contradict its art-philosophical concept. (AT, 7; my emphasis)

(AT, r7B; my emphasis)

[AT,122]);

constituted as an antinomy of objectification and


incompletion, closed and open form. Hence this (famously) paradoxicalstatement: "That in drama not the text but the performance is taken to be what
matters, just as in music not the score but the living sound is so regarded, testifies to the precariousness of the thing-character in art, wltich docs not, how-

it is rather that the work

is

lr

more than simply instructions for them: they are indeed the thing itself" (AT,
roo). (To which one might add that for Adorno this superiority of the score is
emphatically so in the case of a work by Sch<inberg, which, as the saying goes,

the propensiti es ffendenzenf active in it. Conversely, the parts are not something
given, as which analysis almost inevitably mistakes them: Rather, they are centers
ofenergy that strain toward the whole on the basis ofa necessity that they equally
perform. The vortexofthis dialectic ultimately consumes the conceptof meaning.

him-despite his rejection of hierarchies-the Prototype of allart

i i:!

ever, thereby release the artwork from its participation in the world of things.
For scores are not only almost always better than the performances, they are

becoming. Whatevermoyintheartworkbecalledatotaliqisnotastructurethqtintegratesrhe
sum of itsparts. Even objectified the work remains a developing Process by virtue of

Of course-or, as one might say, asusuol-Adorno here is less than clear. It


is not just that the work of art is temporal rather than spatial in its constitution (although Adorno certainly inclines toward this view, since music is for

ii ,.! :1 :j i, ,i.l ,1i:, ili I

By "its art-philosophical concept" I take Adorno to mean (at least) the classical
ideal of unity that, for example, remains the centerpiece of Hans-Georg Gadamer's philosoph ical aesthetics (as in The Releu ance of the Beautiful). By contrast,
it is the breakup of unity, that is, the resistance of materialto integration into

totaliry-the autonomy of parts with respect to the whole-that sets the


modernist work apart from the classics of tradition. lt is also what makes the
work oIart an allegory of critical theory, that is, a critique of a modernity for
which integration into a totality gives the definition of order, rationality, and
a

159
things as they are. ln modernism (as distinct from moderniry) art confounds
the order of things by way of "the aesthetic conception of antiart; indeed without this element art is no longer thinkable. This implies nothing less than
that art must go beyond its own concept in order to remain faithful to that
concept" (AT, zg).As if the task of form were to articulate the materiality of
the artwork in all of its heterogeneity and fragmentation.'o Hence another of
Adorno's mottos: "Only what does not fit into this world is true" (AT, Sg).
This is perhaps what Adorno means when he says that what characterizes
modernist art is a "crisis of semblance," which is something like the Russian
formalist (and also Brechtian) notion of estrangement or the disruption of illusion (that is, the illusion that the work is not an artifact): "The strict immanence of the spirit of artworks is contradicted . . . by a countertendency that is
no less immanent: the tendency of artworks to wrest themselves free of the internal unity of their own construction, to introduce within themselves caesuras that no longer permit the totality of the appearan ce fErscheinung]" (AT, 88)."
The caesura is a paratactic event, a break in the integrity of what is formed.
The point here is that the modernist artwork, in contrast to tradition, does not
form a hermeneutical circle, a subordination of parts to a whole; this is the
source of its enigmaticalness or Rritselch arakter (N , rr8), that is, its "fracturednesslAbgebrochenseinl" (AT, rz6), its

repudiation of the concept of meaning

(AT,

r5z), and its refusalofclosure: "Artthat makes the highest claim," Adorno says,
"compels itself beyond form as totality and into the fragmentary. The plight of
form is most emphatically manifest in the difficulty of bringing temporal art

forms to a conclusion; in music composers often speak of the problem of a


finale, and in literature the problem of a denouement, which came to a head
in Brecht. Once having shaken itself free of convention, no artwork was able
to end convincingly" (N, ul). Hence the definitive importance of open forms
like that of the cubist collage, with its dissociated surface of "found" materials, as well as that of montage-"the sudden, discontinuous juxtaposition of
sequences" (AT, r5a): "all modern art," Adorno says, "may be called montage"
(AT, r55), which has its equivalent in the seriality of certain forms of modern
music as well as many examples from modern and contemporary Poetry, starting perhaps with Pound's Contos and fanning out in all directions-from Louis
Zukofsky's "A" (tg78) and Charles Olson's Maximus Poems (r95o-7o) to Iack Spicer's Language (1964) and Lyn

Hejinian's recentA

Bord er Comedy

(1994-97)-

all this months ago, years maybe-in lune, anyway, of t9g4


I thought I could, as it were, follow a poem that kept itself apart from me

I began

And from itself

short lyric of shifts

A page or two at
A

most

poem of metamorphoses,

lwould write

writing in lost contexts

line or two

No more
And go away
And come back another day only to add something that would change everything
On the scale ofpoetry (BC, 63)

(Meanwhile, Adorno's Philosophy of New Music contains this intriguing footnote: "The closed artwork is bourgeois, the mechanical artwork belongs to
fascism, and the fragmentary work-in its complete negativity-belongs to
utopia" [PNM, r83].'')
Here perhaps would be the place to refer at last to Adorno's essay titled
"Parataxis: On Holderlin's Late Poetry" 0g6+), which aims to refute Heidegger's reading of Hdlderlin by treating Holderlin as an avant-garde poet for
whom "the category of unity, like that of the fatherland, is not central" (NL,
z:u9). What is central is the refusal of the hierarchical or architectonic form
of the Ciceronian period in favor of something Adorno calls "subcutaneous
form" (NL, z:r3o). Subcutaneous form is an anarchic formation that cannot be
closed in a synthesis. Hcilderlin's late hymns, Adorno says, "may be constitutively incapable of completion" (NL, z:r38).'a Whereas discursive language "is
chained to the form of judgment and proposition and thereby the synthetic

form of the concept," in poetry "aconceptual synthesis turns against its medium; it becomes a constitutive dissociation" (NL, z:r3o)-in other words, a
paratactical "transformation of language into a serial order whose elements
are linked differently than in the fform of] judgment" (NL, z:r3r). Hence "the
anticlassical quality" of Hdlderlin's late poetry-"its rebellion against harmo-

ny" (NL, z:r33), its fragmentation, and above all its displacementof the lyric
subjectonto longuageossuch (language freed from its function ofdiscursive signification and the norms of semantic transparency):
Linguistic synthesis contradicts what Holderlin wants to express in language. . . .
Whether intentionally on H<ilderlin's part or simply by the nature of things, this
occasioned the sacrifice ofthe period, to an extreme degree. Poetically, this represents the sacrifice

ofthe legislating subject itself. lt is in Holderlin, with that

sacrifice, that the poetic movement unsettles the category of meaning for the

first

time. For meaning is constituted through the linguistic expression of synthetic


unity. The sublect's intention, the primacy of meaning, is ceded to language along
with the legislating subject. (NL, z:r36)

164
Holderlin is the first modernist. Anyhow the idea that paratactic form displaces the writing subject onto language is one of modernism's most venerable doctrines, incarnated perhaps most perfectly in many of the writings of
Gertrude Stein (but one should also consult Maurice Blanchot on the theory
and practice of the fragment).'a The idea presupposes (that is, opposes) the
thesis, proposed by various versions of logic, linguistics, and philosophy of
language, thatthe subject is constituted bythe logical form ofthe proposition:

So

the ability to say " 1" and to recognize oneself as such is entailed in the power of
the predicate. The "1" is what is imPlicitly asserted in every assertion.'s But the

dissociation of fragmentary writing-the juxtaposition or, as Adorno might


put it, the constellation as against the interconnection of phrases-deprives
the subject of a place to present itself. There is no starting point, end point,
or any standpoint in between. As lean-Frangois Lyotard says ofparatax in The
D'rfferend: "Conjoined by and, phrases or events follow each another, but their
successiondoesnotobeyacategorical order(because;if,then;inorderto;akhough
. . .). Ioined to the preceding one by and, a phrase rises out of nothingness to
link up with it. Paratax thus connotes the abyss of Not-Being which opens between phrases, it stresses the surprise that something begins when what is
said is said. And is the conjunction that most allows the constitutive discontinuity (or oblivion) of time to threaten, while defring it through its equally
constitutive continuity (or retention). . . . lnstead ofand, and assuringthe same
paratactic function, there can be a comma, or nothing" (D, 65-66). "Abyss of
Not-Being" is perhaps a bit of Gallic hyperbole, but the point is that paratax
is outside the logical and cognitive "phrase regimens" on which identity depends, so nothing follows from the I think, just as nothing makes it possible.
Je estun autre,

in Rimbaud's famous line, and so is everything else-including

language, which no longer operates in the service of meaning.


But then what is language when it is no longer in the service of meaning?

This, basically, is the question at work in Adorno's essays on Rudolf Borchardt (1967) and Hans G. Helms (r96o). Not surprisingly, Adorno's answer has
Iargely to do with music, which means (for him) atonality. "ln everything he
wrote," Adorno says of Borchardt, "he made himself an organ of language'
. . . Language murmurs and rustles through him like a stream. . . . The speaking
gesture of almost every line he wrote is not so much the gesture of a person
speaking but rather, in its intention, the epiphany of language" (NL, z:t93)'
Hence the Rijtselcharakter of his poems: "They are not objects of contemplation,
especially by the criterion ofvisuaI concreteness, but linguistically they are full
ofsensuousness. . . . The speaking energy that holds language to its obiectifi"
cation in his poetry causes the poems to approxinratc tttttsit (N l., z: r93 94)

not, however, in terms of the "music-like effects" that one finds in Rilke and
Trakl, but rather in virtue of their dissonance: "ln Borchardt's work, reconciliation consists in giving artistic form to the irreconcilable. As poet, Borchardt
vibrates between two poles and appropriates the antithesis as a formal law,,
(NL, z:r99).

In fact, Borchardt's poems do not seem especially dissonant-Marjorie


Perloff tells me (in conversation) that I should think of them as colloquial in
comparison with Brecht, as in this genial apostrophe to the sonnet form:,6
ABSCHIED VOM SONETT

Sonett, als alle sagten, du bist tot,


Sprach ich "steh aufl" Als sie dich beinern nannten
Nahmst du mir Herz und Adern fort: da brannten

Dir Puls und Mund von neugeborner Not.


schmdhlten: "Das ist alles? Das ist Brot

Sie

Ftir Durft?" Und dein strengen Arme spannten


Sich doppelt und erschufes; die dich kannten,
Hast du erndhrt, con Hand zu Hdnden bot.
Dein Becher sich; den ich das letzte Mal
Heut frille: es ist aus. Musik und eual
Der grof3en Zeiten ward dir vollgemessen:
Der gief3e nichts Cemeinres in das MaB,

Drau sich die Minne trank: was ich besessen

rtirl

Ward in dir ewig: Gcitter, nehmt das Glas.,z


i

Helms is another thing entirely. The work to which Adorno proposes to introduce us in his essay on Helms is unpronouncably entitled FA: M'AHNIES6w0W
(1959), is at once a concrete or visual poem made of orthographic and typographical constructions, with large helpings of white space, and is a work of
sound- or acoustical-poetry (Lautpoesie) in the tradition of the German Hlrspiele
or "hear-plays" that have flourished on German radio since the r95os (Helms's

published text is accompanied by a ten-inch disk recording). The text (a


,oycelike mulligan stew of skewed languages-cerman, French, English, Latin) begins as follows:

r)

Haud ego terrerbar, sed mater mea tassam coffeae effundibat. Tat, quae
lamentation infibatr Mais non-; da mi livae mille, mater o tam magnanima
mea, sic ut posit cylindriculos herbarum nicotianarum emere. Hoc delicatum

eral ita simili: terque vita mihi ante acta (PRAETERITA) in facultate recordante
nrea [ormulat hodie, par me donc, nec splendordivinus nec regina caelitum

llri

163
illic est, tror mig. Ma cosi un'argentum habebande, more than ego, real'n
armum VAUVOW, dej cHffit innerte taschum schajtis er dande.
z) Was wird er den machen? Wenn ers macht, macht ers fein, lieb Michaelilein
Krummndschenbohr, ein tauwer sottive im Herzen der Bltischen
gtugluhicksodorhiiiit (h); studierimek trirkiyimac indiliiftikugg approtzikaq

ohrnientallistikick?
3) "Gellltl" her midde Penunse, barraufn Tisch oder Ware zurlick. Betriiger?
nuja bittischeen ei'Neiin, nie, nur Suhmklein philanthropikuss:

herrrr-:

dankrifiil

the first ofwhich is that the concept ofverstehen, understanding, has no application to such a work: "Essential to such a text is the shock with which it
forcibly interrupts communication. The harsh light of unintelligibility that
such a work turns toward the reader renders the usual intelligibility suspect
as being shallow, habitual, reified-in short, preartistic. To translate what aPpears alien in qualitatively modern works into current concepts and contexts
betrayal of the works themselves" (NL, z:95).
Adorno
says, "language cannot completely dispense with its
To be sure, as
significative moment, with concepts and meanings. . . . Even a stammered

something of

sound, if it is a word and not a mere tone, retains its conceptual range, and
certainly the internal coherence of a linguistic work, without which it could
not be organized as a linguistic unity, cannot dispense with the conceptual element" (NL, z:98-99). Gertrude Stein made the same pointwhen she said that
one has to write in English; poetry is not labberwocky. But in FA: M'AHNIESGW0W
the materialof language (letters, phonemes, morphemes, words) is organized
serially rather than discursively, which enables Adorno to link Helms to modern (or modernist) music. With respect to poetics Adorno seems very much
to follow PaulValdry, who solidified the poetry/music analogy introduced by
Mallarm6 (and by Walter Pater somewhat earlier and perhaps to less effect),
except of course that Adorno has a very different theory of music; one can't
imagine what Val6ry would have made of Adorno, much less of Helms. At any
rate this is how Adorno describes the form of Helms's work:
The whole is composed in structures, Put together in each case

intelligible on the surface to parts in which the phonetic values, the Pure exprescompletelyoutweigh the semanticvalues, the meanings. (NL, z:ro4)

sive qualities,

pflegeh....'8

Perhaps understandably, Adorno himself does not cite, much less analyze,
any "passages" from FA: M'AHNIESGW0W; instead he restricts himself to the
statement of some "Presuppositions (Vornsseuungen)" (the title of his essay),

is

whole perceptible in the texture of its parts did not lead serial
composers to simply liquidate meaning. [Karlheinz] Stockhausen retains meaning, that is, the immediately apperceptible context, as a limit value. A continuum
extends from this to structures that renounce the customary mode of hearing
meaning, namely the illusion of a necessity linking one sound to another. These
structures can be grasped only in something like the way the eye surveys the surface of a picture as a whole. Helms' conception stands in an analogous relationship to discursive meaning. Its continuum extends from quasi-narrative portions
as a phenomenal

from a series of di-

mensions, or, in the terminologr ofserial music, parameters, that appearautonomously, or combined, or ordered hierarchically. A model may help to clari! the
affiniq/ of this procedure with the serial techniquc irr nrusic. Ihc crisis o[meaning

ln other words, in keeping with the concept of form developed in Aesrhedc


Theory, the parts are autonomous and in motion with respect to the whole,
thus breaking with "the illusion of a necessity linking one sound for word, or
letter] to another." Not surprisingly, Helms was a great admirer of John Cage,
whose recourse to chance operations in the composition both of sounds and
texts seems to be one of the principal models on which

based-as much
pays

Cage as loyce's FinnegansWake

FA: M AHNIESGWOW

is

(to which, to be sure, Helms

tribute with some obvious parodies):

Mike walked in on the : attense of Chlazzus as they sittith softily sipping sweet
okaykes H-flowered, purrhushing'eir goofhearty offan-on-beats, holding moisturize'-palmy sticks clad in clamp dresses of tissue d'arab, drink in actionem
fetlandi promoting protolingamations e state of nascendi; completimented go
Iscene of hifibrow 'n' teasuckers tits slips peeptwats enthralled, all that snifflin'
e-van beshmoosed kinda; lus'bearinnanals figs fags rue-sodomighties, gomor-

rhoeae, trip-blades nymphridgs painseederastless, senily hardchancryote apperciverts, her-mac-pros'a-dishts faetishits snarks chromosollipsists. . .

-and

so on, for a full page, before breaking into new or different configura-

tions of noise.
It appears to be a common practice among Adorno scholars to fold Aesthetic
Theory back into his earlier writings on modern music, as David Roberts does
when he writes that "the elaborations of the late AestheticTheory add nothing
essentially new. . . . Not only is AestheticTheory incapable of going beyond the
limits of the earlier construction, it even retreats from its logic to circle endlessly, inconclusively, in the empry space of a modernism which has lost all
historical contours, has been evacuated of all historical events and figures
merely as a backdrop to the invocation of the exclusive pantheon of authentic-

ity"--namely, Kafka, Beckett, and so forth (Artond Enlightenment,5g). Likewise


the recent CambridgeCompanionto Adorno contains several entries on Adorno's
thcories of music but none on AestheticTheory, which generally is mentioned

165

164
contrast, I think it's important
to attach the example of Helms to AestheticTheory as a reminder that Adorno's
great abstract work, arguably the most important work of philosophical
aesthetics since Kant and Hegel, is also very much an expression of its time,
namely that of the turbulent European and North American art worlds of the
r95os and r96os-John Cage and Jackson Mac Low, Guy Debord and the situationists, Henri Chopin and acoustical poetry, the "verbovocovisual" poems

only in passing throughout the volume.'e

By

of the Brazilian Noigandres group, Fluxus, the Vienna Aktionists and other
performance- and body-art figures, minimalism and the various Conceptual
Art movements, the New American Poetry and the New York School of Poets,
particularly lohn Ashbery's poetry, among many other examples of formalanarchism. (Here I would recommend a very provocative essay by Mary Caputi
entitled "Theodor Adorno and the Performance Art of Cindy Sherman."'o) ln
his essay on Helms Adorno writes: "The moment of the absurd, which is constituent of all art but has hitherto been largely hidden by the conventional moment, has to emerge and express itself. The so-called unintelligibility of legitimate contemporary art is the consequence of something peculiar to art itself,
Its provocativeness carries out the historical judgment on an intelligibility
that has degenerated into misunderstanding" (NL, z:97-98). Likewise in AestheticTheory he writes that "art is now scarcely possible lwithout] experiment"
(N,ZZ), particularly as this means thatthe production of the work is not under
programmatic control and thatwhatwill emerge cannot be foreseen.
The argument here seems to be that the work of art, if it is art at all, should
be in advance of our capacity to receive it. "Works are usually critical in the era
in which they appear; later they are neutralized, not least because ofchanged
social relations. Neutralization is the social price of aesthetic autonomy" (AT,
zz8). (Recall the artist Lawrence Weiner's remark: "When mywork is assimilated into the art context, itwill change something. I hope itwon't be considered
viable living art in ten years. . . . As what I do becomes art history the minute

culture accepts it, so it stops being art. "'') But more than this it appears that the
work of art always constitutes a limit of philosophical aesthetics, that is, a limit of the explanatory power of aesthetics, and that the experience of this Iimit
is part ofwhat constitutes an experience ofart: "The better an artwork is understood, the more it is unpuzzled on one level, the more obscure its constitutive enigmaticalness IRritselhafies] becomes. lt only emerges demonstratively in

the profoundest experience of art. lf a work opens itself completely, it reveals


itself as a question and demands reflection: then the work vanishes into the
distance, only to return to those who thought they understood it, overwhelming them for a second time with the question: 'What is it?"' lcin zwoites Mul nit

demWssistdaszuiiberfallenl (AT, rzr). ln other words, the work of art provokes

aesthetics by producing things "of which we do not know what they are." In
this respectAestheticTheory is a determinate negation of aesthetics as a positive
theory, as if it were Adorno's thesis that, contra Hegel, the movement of the
history of art always and repeatedly brings the philosophy of art to an end.
This seems at any rate to be the upshot of Adorno's "Draft lntroduction" to
AestheticTheory, which begins by saying that the task ofaesthetics is self-critical:
"Art does not stand in need of an aesthetics that will prescribe norms where it
finds itself in difficulty, but rather of an aesthetics that will provide the capac-

ity for reflection, which art on its own is hardly abte to achieve. Words such
material, form, and formation, which flow all too easily from the pens of
contemporary artists, ring trite; to cure contemporary language of this is one
of the art-practical functions of aesthetics" (AT, 34r). It seems to me that one
achievement of Adorno's theory is to defamiliarize the traditional concePts
of aesthetics-unity, integrity, harmony, but also form and material-and to
give us in their place an aesthetics of the fragment, arguably the once and fuas

ture formal category of modernism.


A modernist aesthetics, like modernist art and music, is under a standing

obligation to reinvent itself as it goes along-a phenomenon that one sees


in contemporary poetry, with its strong commitment to poetics (writings on
poetry by poets) as a way oftracking or even initiating the changes in form
and materiaI that keep the practice of poetry from becoming self-evident in
its procedures and results. In one of his later essays, "Vers une musique informelle" (r96r)-in part a polemic against the rigid use of the twelve-tone
system of musical composition-Adorno recurs to the term" musique informelle"
"as a small token of gratitude towards the nation forwhom the tradition of
the avant-garde is synonymous with the courage to produce manifestos. ln
contrast to the stufry aversion to 'isms' in art, I believe slogans are as desirable now as they were in Apollinaire's day. Musique informelle resists definition
in the botanicalterms of the positivists. If there is a tendency, an actual trend,
which the word serves to bring into focus, it is one which mocks all efforts at
definition" (QF, z7z). Musiqueinformelle is "athematic music," a "free atonality": "What is meant," says Adorno, "is a type of music which has discarded all
forms which are external or abstract or which confront it in an inflexible way"
(QF , z7z). It is an instance of open form-"music whose end cannot be foreseen in the course of production" (QF, :o:). "From this point of view musique
informelle wou[d be the idea lVorstellung] of something not fully imagined [uor4cstelltl. lt would be the integration by the composer's subjective ear of what
sirrrply cannot be imagined at the leveI of each individual note, as can be seen

166
from Stockhausen's'note clusters' lTontrauben). The frontier between a meaningless objectification which the composer gaPes at with open mouth and
closed ears, and a composition which fulfills the imagination by transcending
it, is not one that can be drawn according to any abstract rule" (QF, 3c6.-0.
Here perhaps one could begin to imagine aesthetics as a kind of negative theology: that which in the end does not actually predicate anything of the work
of art-as, for example, in the case of one ofAd Reinhardt's "Black Paintings,"
which Reinhardt describes as follows:
high, as high as a man, as wide as a man's
(nor
sizeless),
trisected (no composirion), one horiarms
lorge,
not
small,
outstretched
(formless,
notop, nobottom, directionless) three
form
negating,
one
verticaI
zontal form
(more or less) dark (lrghtles$ noncontrasting (colorles$ colors, brushwork brushed

A square (neurral, shapeless) canvas, 5 feet

out to remove brushwork, a mat flat, free-handpainted surface (glossless, textureless,


non-lineor, nohard edge, no softedge)which does not reflect its surroundings-a pure,
abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, distinterested painting-an object that is self-conscious (no unconsciousness) ideal, transcendent, aware of no thing butArt (obsolutely no onttart)."

One wonders what Adorno would have made of this. lf we follow the dialectic
of AestheticTheory, Reinhardt's work is a purely antinomic artifact, an iconoclas-

tic icon: in other words,

perfect work of art.

PREFACE

Jean-Frangois Lyotard and .lean-Loup Thebaud, lust Gaming, trans. Wlad Godzich

(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, r985), r6.


So Clifford Ceertz trumps Claude Ldvi-Strauss. See Geertz'sThe lnterpretation ofCulrures

(NewYork: Basic Books, 1973), esp.3-3r.

Cited by loseph Kosuth, "Art After Philosophy," in Conceptual

Art: ACritical Anthology,

ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999),
165.
Philosophicallnvestrgorions

$67-68, trans. G.

E. M.

Anscombe (NewYork: Macmillan,

lg::f),32-33.
"Program for Literary Criticism," trans. Walter Livingston, in Walter Benjamin:
ed. Michael W. lennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary
Smith (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), z9o.
SelectedWritings,ll:rgzl-t934,

r:

WHAT ARE POETS FOR?

The anecdote foreshadows Duchamp's LargeGlass, of which Duchamp once said:


"Ycs, and the more I look at it the more I like

t(;1

it. I like the cracks, the way they fall.

169

168
You remember how

it happened in

1926,

See

in Brooklyn? They put the tvvo panes

Complexiry:The Emerging science at the Edge of Choos (New

York: Simon & Schuster, r99z).

a truck, flat, not knowing what they were carrying, and


bounced for sixty miles into Connecticut, and that's the resultl But the more I
look at it the more I like the cracks: they are not like shattered glass. They have a
shape. There is a symmetry in the cracking, the two crackings are symmetrically
arranged and there is more, almost an intention there, an extra-a curious in-

on top ofone another on

tention that I am not responsible for, a ready-made intention, in other words,


that I respect and love." TheWritings of Marcel Duchamp, ed. Michel Sanouillet and

M. Mitchelt Waldrop,

ThePoemsofMarianneMoore, ed. Grace Schulman (New York: Penguin Books, zoo5),


135.

"f erboas, Pelicans,

and Peewee Reese: Marianne Moore," inSelectedProse' ed' Eu-

gene Richie (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, zoo5), 8z'


10

Elmer Peterson (New York: Da Capo Press, rg73), tz7.

William A. Camfield, "Marcel Duchamp's Fountain: Its History and Aesthetics

After retiring from years ofteaching at the Brooklyn Polytechnic lnstitute Zukofsky turned (like Candide) to gardening. There does not seem to be a flower he
and his wife, Celia, could not identifr. See Zukofsky's "Eighty Flowers," inComplete

ln "The Creat American Novel," Williams writes: "Here's a man wants me to revise, to put in order. My God what I am doing means just the opposite from that.

ShortPoetry (Baltimore: lohns Hopkins University Press, r99l).


"Poetry and Grammar," inLecturesinAmerico (NewYork: Vintage Books, 1975), zto.
However, this taboo applies chiefly to the writing of prose' In poetry the business
of nouns is more complex: "Poetry is concerned with using with abusing, with
losing with wanting, with denying with avoiding with adorning with replacing

There is no revision, there can be no revision" (lmaginations, 176). See Gerald

the noun" (z3r). Consider the austerity ofnouns instanzasin Medirotion:

See

intheContextof rgr7," inMarcelDuchamp:AnistoftheCentury,ed Rudolf Kuenzli and


Francis M. Naumann (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press,

t98fl,64-94.

1l

L.

Bruns, "De tmprovisatione: An Essay on (oro in Hell," in lnventions: Writing,TextualiE,


andUnderstondinginLiterary History (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, r98z),

t4;-5g; and Stephen Fredman's chapter on

Koro in Hell

AmericanVerse, znd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge

in

Iittle daisies very well


multiplying to either six nine or fourteen
Or she can be well mentioned as twelve

She may count three


By

Poet's Prose:The Crisis in

University Press, r99o), rz-54.

famouslywith the statementthat "it is self-evident


that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore" (AT, t), and later he adds:
"Art responds to the loss of self-evidence not simply by concrete transformations
of its procedures and comportments but by trying to pull itself free from its own

Which they may like which they can like soon [ . . . ]


Or they can attire where they need as which say

Adorno'sAestheticTheory begins

concept as from

shackle: the fact that it is art" (AT, 16). See Arthur Danto's treat-

Can they call a hat or a hat a day

Made merry because it is so. (SM, 3t-32)

t2 See Stephen Fredman's discussion of


13

ment of this paradox, "Works ofArt and Mere RealThings," inTheTransfigurationof


theCommonplace (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, r98t), t-32.
See Fredric f ameson's
n

o,

on : Verso, r 99 o), esp.

57 -6

4.

On conceptual art, see loseph Kosuth, "Art after Philosophy," in Conceptual Art: A
CriticalAnthology, ed. AlexanderAlberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT
Press, 1999), t58-77, esp. 164: "The event that made conceivable the realization

that it was possible to 'speak another language' and still make sense in art was
MarceI Duchamp's first unassisted readymade. With the unassisted readymade,
art changed its focus from the form of the language to what was being said.
Which means that it changed the nature of art from a question of morphology to
a question of function. This change-one from'appearance' to'concePtion'was the beginning of 'modern' art and the beginning of 'conceptual' art. All art
(after Duchamp) is conceptual (in nature) because art only exists conceptually."
See

ll

t20.

This is the thesis, interestingly, of the first part of Martin Heidegger's "The Origin

timately familiar to thought that tries to think the thing? If so, then we should
not force our way to its thingly character." Poetry, Language,Thought, trans. Albert
Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, r97r), 3t-32.

r4

On the problem of form in Ashbery's poetry, Particularly in the early poems, see
Marjorie Perloff, "'Mysteries of Construction': The Dream Songs of lohn Ash-

bery," in The Po eticsoflndeterminaE:Rimbaudto Coge (Princeton, N.l.: Princeton UniversityPress, r98t),248-BT. lnarecentPaper,"LaGrandePerrnission:lohnAshbery
in the zrst Century" Perloff gives us something of a retrospective on Ashbery's
work, meanwhile bringing us uP to date on "the self-contradiction of Ashbery's
poetics" (unpublished ms. cited by permission, 4).

Marjorie Perloffl, "Marcel Duchamp's Conceptual Poetics," inzrst-Century Mod-

ernism:The"New"Poerics (London: Basil Blackwell, zooz),

in Poet'sProse, rct-35.

of the Work of Art," which celebrates the way the singularity of things escaPes
the grasp ofpropositionat thinking: "The unpretentious thing evades thought
most stubbornly. Or can it be that this self-refusal of the mere thing, this selfcontained independence, belongs precisely to the nature ofthe thing? Must not
this strange and uncommunicative feature of the nature of the thing become in-

discussion of "aesthetic nominalism" inLate Marl.ism: Ador

r, Th e Persisten ce of th e Di alecric ( Lo nd

Three Poems

r5

"On the Treatment of Complex Entities," in

When Music Resisrs Meaning:The Maior

il

170
Writingsof HerbertBriln, ed. Arun Chandra (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univer-

"Sporting Life, " inThe Colleued Bools of lockSpicer, ed. Robin Blaser (Santa Rosa, Ca-

sity Press, zoo4), z5o.

lif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1989), zr8.

l6

See

17

http://www.writing.upenn.edu/library/Mayer-Bernadette-Experiments.html.
A revised and abridged version of"Experiments" appears in Bruce Andrews and
Charles Bernstein, eds., The L:A=N=G=U=A=G=EBook (Carbondale: Southern Illinois
University Press, 1984), 8o-83. References here are to the online version. Compare

Daniel Kane,All PoetsWelcome:TheLowerEastsidePoetrySceneinthery6os


ley: University ofCalifornia Press, zoo3), t87-zot.

Killian (Middletown, Conn.:Wesleyan


University Press, zoo8),3p. On dictation, see Spicer's "Vancouver Lecture, l: Dic-

tation and a'Textbook ofPoetry,"' inTheHouseThotJackBuilt:TheCollectedLecturesof


lackSpicer, ed. Peter Cizzi (Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1998), r-48,
esp. z: "instead oFthe poet being a beautiful machine which manufactured the
current tor itself,, did everything for itself . . . instead there was something from
the Outside coming in. . . . I think the source is unimportant." See Peter Gizzi's
"Afterword," r87: "Radio offers the simplest analory for Spicer's practice of dictation as it literalizes the actual transmission of words from elsewhere through
technologr and reinforces the notion that language itself is an alien medium."
See also Robin Blaser, "The Practice of the Outside," inTheCollectedBoolsof )ack

See

Charles Bernstein's "Experiments List," http://wvvr,v.writing.upenn.edu/bernstein/

experiments.html.

r8

(Paris: Gallimard, 1969). See Gilbert Adair's translation,

A Void

(London: Harvill,

lss4).

19 Warren Motte lr. has assembled an anthology of Oulipian "poetics" in

oulipo:

Motte |r. (Normal, lll.: Dalkey Archive Press, r99B). See especially Marcel Benabou's contribution, "Rule and
Constraint": "All these obstacles that one creates for oneself-playing, for exAPrimer of PotentiolLiterature, trans. Warren F.

Spicer,

25

ample, on the nature, the order, the length, or the number of letters, syllables,
or words-all these interdictions that one postulates reveal their true function:
their final goal is not a mere exhibition of virtuosity but rather an exPloration of

virtualities" (qr-qz).lnterestingly, Mayer's inventory of experiments contains a


variation on one ofOulipo's signature procedures, N+7: "Take a traditional text
like the pledge ofallegiance to the flag. For every noun, replace it with one that is
seventh or ninth down from the original one in the dictionary. For instance, the
word 'honesty'would be replaced by'honey dew melon.' Investigate what happens: different dictionaries will produce different results." http://www.writing
upenn.edu/library/Mayer-Bernadette-Experiments. html.

to have
of nearly nvo million

been sung by a "skald."

lt

is a Sanskrit poem (4th c. BCE)

zr "French Oulipianism,"

inPataphysics:ThePoeticsoflmaginaryScience

(Evanston,

lll.:

Northwestern University Press, zooz), 65.

zz

Lewitt's "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art," in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology,


r4-r5. Compare Paul Val6ry's idea that a work of art is great to the extent that it
defies "all practice." "Memoirs of a Poem," inTheArtof Poetll, trans. Denise FolSee

liot(Princeton, N.l.: Princeton University Press, 1958), 147-48.

See Lucy

Lippard,

SixYeors:TheDematerializationoftheArt1bjectfromry66totgT2(Berkeley: Universityof
California Press, r973); and Lucy Lippard and.lohn Chandler, "The Dematerializa-

tion ofArt, " in

z3

Conceptuol Art: A Criticol Anthology ,

46-50

"General Aims and Theories," inTheCompletePoemsandSelectedLettersofHortCrone,


ed. Brom Weber (New York: Anchor Books, r966), zzt.

The poet Charles Bernstein writes: "Poetry is turbulent thought. . . . lt leaves


things unsettled, unresolved-leaves you knowing less than you did when you
started." See "What's Art Got to Do with lt" (MW, 42-$).Compare Robert Creeley's idea that poets and artists "have a much higher tolerance for disorder than is
Poem E ?therEssays

(Bolinas,

Calif.: Four Seasons Foundation, ry79), 14.See Michael Davidson's discussion

of Spicer in

The San Francisco Renaissonce: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century

(Cam-

bridge: Cambridge University Press, t989), r5o-7r; and Ron Silliman's "spicer's
Language," in

The NewSenrence (New

York: ROOF Books, tgSg), t47-66.

oIubuweb.com, a site devoted to contemporary experimental poetry. His Trilogy has been published in three separate volumes byMake Now Press (LosAngeles). See Marjorie Perloff, "Conceptual Bridges

z6 Goldsmith is the founder and curator

/ Digital Tunnels: Kenneth Goldsmith's Traflc," in

Coach House Books, zooz), rz.The Mahabharotl is not likely

words.

z7t-329.

the usual case." "A Sense of Measure," inWasThataReol

zo (Ioronto:

See also My VocabularyDidThisro Me:TheCollected

Poemsof )ackSpicer, ed. PeterCizzi and Kevin

(Berke-

Means in th e N ew Century (Chicago : U

21

niversity of

Ch

Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by

lther

icago Press, zo r o), r 46-6 5.

York Granary Books, zoor), r5. Also available at http://www.epc.buffalo


.edu/authors/goldsmith.html. See "A Silly Key: Some Notes on Soliloquy by Kenneth Goldsmith," OpenLettert2,no.T (Fall zoo5): 65-76. This is a special number
of 1penLetter on "Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetry" ed. Lori Emerson
(New

and Barbara Cole.


The text of "Being Boring" is available on Goldsmith's webpage at Buffalo's

Electronic Poetry Center, http://www.epc.buffato.edu/authors/goldsmlth/


gotdsmith_boring. html.
"Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing," 0penText 72, no.7 (Fall zoo5): ro8. Goldsmith, true to his poetics, is plagiarizingSol Lewitt's "Paragraphs on Conceptual
Art": "The idea becomes a machine that makes the art" (Conceptuol Art: ACrirical Anthology, tz). See lohanna Drucker, "The Crux of Conceptualism: Conceptual Art,

172

173

the ldea of ldea, and the Information Paradigm," in

Conceptual An:Theory, Myth,

2 : SHOULD POETRY BE ETHICAL OR OTHERWISE?

andPracrice, ed. Michael Contis (Cambridge: Cambridge Universiry Press, zoo4),

See

z5r-68; and "Un-visual and Conceptual," )penLetter o, no. 7 (zoo5): t38.


3o

Marjorie Perloff rejects the Sisyphusian thesis and reads Trffic as a book about
the absurd incoherence of New York traffic rePorts. See Unoriginal Genius, esp.
r57-6t.
Goldsmith, "A Conversation with Kenneth Coldsmith," with Marzoq),http:lliacketmagazine.com/zr/perl-gold-iv
.htmt. "f could have easilykeptFidgetas potential Iiterature by issuingthe instruction 'Record every move your body makes for a day.' But if I hadn't gone through
the rigorous process of actualizing it, the writingwould have been very different.
I certainly could never have invented feeling so fed up with doing the exercise
that I couldn't help fgetting] drunk!"

33

Beckett's Aesthetic: Mathematical Allusions in


ture 30,

(Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, zoor), 204-29; G. Matthew lenkins, "saying Obligation: George Oppen's Poetry and Levinasian Ethics," /ournol
of American Studies 37, no. 3 @oq): 407-33; Tim Woods, The Poetics of theLimt Erhics
andPoliricsinModernandContemporaryPoerry (Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Press,
2oo3); Matthew Sharpe, "Aesthet(h)ics: On Levinas's

l. Alane Howard, "The Roots of

no. + (tggg): 346-56.

"Poetry's Ethics: Theodor W. Adorno and Robert Duncan on Aesthetic lllusion


and Sociopolitical Delusion," NewGermanCritique33,no. t (zoo6):73-trB; Marshall
Brown, "The Case forVertical Ethics," Boundaryz,34,no.3(zoo7):16r-88; G. Matthewfenkins, PoeticObligation:Erhicsin ExperimentalPoetryafterry45 (lowa City: Uni-

University Press, 1968). See also Kaldron On-Line, which has a large archive of
visual poetry: http://rwvw.thing.net/-grist/l&d/kaldron.htm. A valuable recent

versity of lowa Press, zoo8).

study is LizKotz,WordstoBeLookedAt:Languagein rg6osArt(Cambridge, Mass.: MIT

Alain Badiou,

Press, zooT).

36

Media Poetry: An lnternational

Antholog, ed. Eduardo Kac (Chicago: Intellect Books,

37

See Eduardo Kac, HodibisPotox:PoetryAnthology

(lvry-sur-Seine: EditionsAction Po-

etique, zooT).

38

Films o[ Kac's holopoems can be found online at ubuweb.com. See especially


"Adhuc," at http://www.ubuweb.com/fi lm/kac-Adhuc. html.

39

(Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, r99B), 3zo. See chapter 6, "After
Free Verse: The New Nonlinear Poetries," 14r-67.

4o

"Khora," in0nthe Nome, ed. Thomas Dutoit, trans. David


P.
Leavey
Wood, John
lr., and lan Mcleod (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Universiry
See facques Derrida,
Press, r995), 89-t28.

Ethics: An Essay on the lJnderstanding ofEvil,

trans. Peter Hallward (Lon-

don: Verso, zoor),28.

SeeAppel, wordless(poems) (NewYork Press Rappel, zoog), and Gaze'sAsemicmag-

zooT),:-3't.

adow," Colloquy:Text,Theo-

Celan," MIN rzo (zoo5): 986*roo8; Xiaojing Zhou, The Erhics ondPoeticsofAkerityin
Asian American Poetry (lowa City: University of lowa Press, zoo6); Robert Kaufman,

Johanna Drucker, TheVisibleWord: ExperimentalTypography and Modern Art, ryo9*


r9z3 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); lean-Paul Cuttay, Letterism and
Hypergraphics: The tJnknown Avont-Garde, ry45-tg&5 (New York: Franklin Furnace,
1985); and Mary Ellen Solt, ed., ConcretePoetry: AWorld-View (Bloomington: lndiana

azine, whose first number provides the image in Figure t.

Sh

zg-47;Timothy Clark, The Po eticsof Singularity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, zoo5); Leslie Hill, "Distrust ofPoetry: Levinas, Blanchot,
ry,Critique, g (zoo5);

Watt," Papers in Languoge and Litera-

34 See

35

(Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press,

Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature

Sincerity: Toward a Levinasian Poetics," in Priorto Meaning: Protosemantics andPoetics

(Autumn ry62):597-613.

Wott (New York: Grove Press, 1959), 165-68. See

Robbins,

Michael Eskin, "A Survivor's Ethics: Levinas's Challenge to Philosophy," Dialectt


calAnthropology 34 0999): so7-So, esp. 44-28; Steve McCaffery, "The Scandal of

Jockerzr (February

Virginia QuarterlyReview 38, no. 4

lnflecred Language:Toward a Herme'

(Chicago: University of
fill
Chicago Press, 1999); Peter Nicholls, "Of Being Ethical: Reflections on George
Oppen," inThe 1bjectivist Nexus: Essoys in Cukural Poetics, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis
and Peter Quartermain (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999), 240*53;

rgg+);

See Kenneth

jorie Perlof[,

(in chronological order) Krzysztof Tiarek,

neutics ofNearness in Heidegger, Levinas, Stevens, ond Celan

TimesLiterlry Supplement, no. 5494 (luly r8, zoo8),

See especially the

tt.

chapter "substitution" in Emmanuel Levinas, OtherwiseThan BeingorBeyondEssence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, t98t),

99-102.
See Emmanuel Levinas, TotaliE and Infinity: An

Essoy

on Exterioriry, trans. Alphonso

Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne Universiry Press, 1969), 43: "We name this calling
into question ofmy spontaneity by the presence ofthe Other ethics. The strangeness of the Other, his irreducibility to the l, to my thoughts and my possessions,
is precisely accomplished as a ca[[ing into question of my spontaneity, as ethics."
See 0therwiseThan Being,5-9, esp. 5-6: "saying is not a game. Antecedent to the
verbal signs it conjugates, to the linguistic systems and the semantic glimmerings, a foreword preceding languages. lt is the proximity of one to the other, the
commitment of an approach, the one for the other, the very signiflingness [stgnificonce\ of signification. . . . The original or pre-original saying, what is put forth

175

174
in the foreword, weaves an intrigue of responsibility. It sets forth an order more
grave than being and antecedent to being. By comparison being appears like

game. Being is play or d6tente, without responsibility, where everything possible


is

r6 There are a number of useful discussions of "Der Meridian," among them: David Brierley, "Der Meridian": Ein Versuch zur Poetik und Dichtung Paul Celans (Frankfurt:
Peter Lang, rgSq); Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, "Catastrophe," in Poetry asExperience,

permitted."

which Levinas adds: "The subject in saying approaches


neighbor in expressing itself, in being expelled, in the literal sense of the term,
out o[any locus, no longer dwelling, not stomping any ground. Saying uncovers,
beyond nudity, what dissimulation there may be under the exposedness of a skin
Othervtisethan Being, 48.To

ed. Aris Fioretos (Baltimore: lohns Hopkins University Press,


tgg4), tro-zg; Nicholas Meyerhoff,, "The Poetics of Paul Celan," Twenrieth-Century
Literature, 27, no. 1 (t98t):72-85; Helmut Mriller-Sievers, "On the Way to QuotaReadingsofPaulCelan,

laid bare. lt is the very respirorion ofthis skin prior to any intention" (C8*qg).

tion: Paul Celan's'Meridian'Speech," NewGermanCritique,y(zoo4): r3t-5o; Raymond Ceuss, "Celan's Meridian," Boundary 2,33, no.3 (zoo6): zto-26. I devote

lavant Biarujia's inventive discussion of this "poetic play," "Charles Bernstein: Creating a / Creative Disturbance," Boxkite #3 (Australia zoo6), http://www
See

some pages to Celan's speech in "The Remembrance of Language," the introduc-

.pepc.Iibrary. See also lerome McGann, "Private Enigmas and Critical Functions,
with Special Thanks to the Poetry ofCharles Bernstein," inThePointlstoChongelt:
Poetry and Criticism in the Continuing Present (Tusca Ioosa: University of Alabama Press,
Feeling and Form: ATheory of Art

(NewYork: Charles Scribner's Sons, r953). 5ee McCaf-

"

No ldentity, " in Collected Philosophical Papers, trans. Alp honso Lingis (The Hague

Martinus Nijhofl rg87), t46.


11

Charles Bernstein and Susan Bee,

The NudeFormalism (Los

Angeles: zo Pages, r989),

n.p.
12

ProperNames,

trans. Michael B. Smith (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press,

lohn Felstiner's translation ofthese passages (SPP, ao8-9), where the


poem is said to be speaking "in its very selfmost cause" and "in the cause ofthe
Other." It has to be mentioned that speaking "in behalfof'or "in the cause of"
an Other (in ein Anderen Sache zu sprechen) is not exactly vocative but is rather more
Compare

like a form ofrepresentation, taking up the cause or res (Soche) ofanother, as in a


legal proceeding. See also lerry Glenn's translation, which appears as an appendix to facques Derrida's Sovereignties in Question:The Poetics ofPaul Celan, ed. Thomas

Dutoit and Outi Pasanen (New York: Fordham University Press, zoo5), r8o-8r.
See

L4

Bernard Fassbind, Poetik des Dialog: Voraussetzungen dialogische


(Mtinchen: Fink, r995).

Der Stein.

The stone.

Der Stein in der Luft, dem ich fotgte.

The stone in the air, which I followed.

Dein Aug, so blind wie der Stein.

Your eye, as blind as the stone.

Wiewaren

We were

Hinde,

hands,

wir schcipften die Finsternis Leer,

we scooped the darkness empty,

Poesie bei Paul Celan

das Wort, das den Sommer

we found

heraufkam:

Blume.

the word that ascended summer


Flower.

Blume-ein Blindenwort.

Flower-a blindman's word.

Dein Aug und mein Aug:

Your eye and my eye:

sie sorgen

they take care

fi..ir Wasser.

of water.

Wachstum.

Growth.

Herzwand um Herzwand.

Heartwall by heartwall

bldttert hinzu

adds on petals.

Ein Wort noch, wie dies, und die

One more word like this, and the

und konzepte von lnrersu

Himmer schwingen im Freien.

hammers will be swinging free

"Holderlin and the Essence of Poetry," trans. Douglas Scott, Existence and Be'
ing (Chicago: Henry Regnery, $49),304-5; or, more recently, Martin Heidegger,
Elucidations of Hdlderlin's Poet,y, trans. Keith Hoeller (Amherst, N.Y.: Humanities

(CWl, r6a)

(SPP, ro5)

See

Books, zooo),56-59.
r5

the poem "Blume [Flower] ," fromsprachgitter, with Felstiner's translation:

wir fanden

tgg6),4o-46.
t3

"On the Addressee," in ComplereCriticalProse, trans. Jane Gary Harris and Constance
Link (Dana Point, Calif. : Ard is Publishers, 1997), 43-48, esp. 47.
See

fery, "Scandal of Sincerity."


10

tion to Gadamer on Celan: "Who am I andWho areYou?" and )ther Essays, trans. Richard
Heinemann and Bruce Krajewski (A[bany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1997), r*5r.
t7

zooT), g8-r24.

trans. Andrea Tarnowski (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999),

4r-7o; f acques Derrida, "Majesties, " in Sov ereignties in Question, r o8-34; Dennis l.
Schmidt, "Black Milk and Blue: Celan and Heidegger on Pain and Language," in

See James K. Lyon, Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger: An Unresolverl Conversorion (Balti-

more: lohns Hopkins University Press, zoo6).

See Rochelle Tobias, The Discours

ofNaturein thePoetry ofPaulCelan:TheUnnaturalWorld

(Baltimore: lohns Hopkins Universiry Press, zoo6).


r9 See "The Nature ofLanguage," in 0ntheWaytoLanguage, trans. Peter Hertz (New
York: Harper & Row, r97r), 75-76. For an example of how poetry's "ground-level
nrode of responsibility" looks in practice, see G. Matthew lenkins's reading of

il

176
Susan Howe's poetry, "The Nearness of Poetry: Susan Howe's Nonconformist's
morial," in

Poetic

)bligation:

Ethics in Experimental American Poerry after 1945

transcendentaI lyric." Bernstein proposes thatwe read Celan, not in isolation (as
we almost always do), but in the context of contemporary North American poetry, with its attention to the materialiry of language and the seriality of form.

Me-

(lowa City:

University oflowa Press, zoo8), t59-8t.

zo

On Celan's compound words, see, for example, "herzschriftgekrtimelte" (GWIl,

24 Compare Felstiner's:

r74), which Pierre Joris translates as "the heartscriPtcrumbled" (TC, r59), while

Etched away by the

Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh translate it as "broken / into heartscript,"

radiant wind ofyour speech

Glottalstop:rotPoems (Hanover, N. H.: Wesleyan University Press, zooo), 62. ln their


note to this poem Popov and McHugh have this to say:

the motley gossip ofpseudo-

experience-the hundredtongued My-

Here and elsewhere Celan's idiosyncratic compounds (herzschriftgekriimek,


Zilndschltisselschimmer)

poem, the Lie-poem.

pose an intractable problem. In English compounds are a

poeticism redolent of the r89os. Even in German where compounding is a common language pattern, and where there is a tradition of Baroque compounding,
Celan's compounds are exorbitant; one might even suspect his excesses

ing in Engtish (we have

G.

25

its power and inventiveness. Compounds thus leave

a choice

See Paraji Risdnen, Counterfigures-An

Essoy on Antimetaphorical Resistance: Paul Cel'

(Helsinki: Helsinki Universiry Printing


House, zooT). See also Harold Rhenisch, "Anti-Lyric: Translating the Chost of
Paul Celan," available at http://www.haroldrhenisch.com/translation.html.

z6 See Shira Wolosky's discussion of this poem in "The Lyric, History, and the Avantgarde: Theorizing the Poetics of Paul Celan," PoericsToday,22, no.3 (zoot):

M. Hopkins), but that leads nowhere because transla-

tion changes the ground from and against which Celanian compounding derives

(SPP, za7)

an'sPoetryandPoeticsattheLimitof Figurality

ofvindic-

tive intentions. His compounds often destroy reference as such and focus on what
makes it possible for Ianguage to exceed its instrumentaI and/or utilitarian uses.
It is, ofcourse, possible to follow Celan to the letter and do excessive compound-

27

between bad and

65t-68.

"A Certain lmpossible Possible Saying of the Event," trans. Gila Walker,inTheLate
Derrida, ed. W. T. l.

Mitchell and Arnold Davidson (Chicago: University of Chicago


the Impre-

worse solutions. Most translators (into English and, especially, into French)

Press, zooT), z3r. See also Derrida, "To Forgive: The Forgivable and

choose to render Celan's compounds as genitives, such as (the) A ofB. We, too,

Thereisatranslation(ofsorts)of"Kalk-Krokus"bytheNewZealandpoetlack

scriptable," QuestioningGod, ed. lohn D. Caputo, Mark Dooley, and Michael l. Scanlon (Bloomington: lndiana University Press, zoor), zr-5r. See FranEois Raffoul,
"Derrida and the Ethics ofthe lmpossible," ResearchinPhenomenology, 38 (zoo8):

Ross:

27o-9o.

have had to resort to that

zr

;lj

177

CHALK-CROCUS

solution more often than we'd like. Q3o)

at

z8 "From Anguish to Language"

multidimension/[ocational WANTED
poster vitaI statistics

stop

the Work assumes meaning and acquires ambition, retaining in itself not only
all works, but also all the forms and all the powers of discourse, the more the ab-

without, however, letting itself


with Mallarmd. With Mallarm6, the Work becomes
aware of itself and thereby seizes itself as something that would coincide with
the absence o[the word: the latter then deflecting it from every coinciding with
sence of the work seems about to propose itself,,

the dent ofDasein

be designated. This occurs

helps the radar out


the Manukau

silts up the vaults.

itself and destining it to impossibility" (lC, aza).

The poem is available online at http://titus.books.online.fr/Percutio/Percutio.htm

The title of a small collection of poems, illustrated by his wife, Gisele CelanLestrange (Frankfurt: Suhrkampl rSSo).

z3

See Charles

Bernstein, "Celan's Veils and Folds," Textuol Prrtclicc, rB, rro. z (zoo4):
zor: "Celan provides little comfort for those who scck;t tttorlt'l lot spiritual ot

trans. Charlotte Mandel (Stanford,

3o "The Fragment Word" (lC, 3o8). Compare "The Absence of the Book": "The more

smile atyou

zz

FauxPas,

29 Transition, no. 5 (1949):98.

bombs

#Celan.

(tgq),

Calif.: Stanford University Press, zoor),3.

daybreak your

31

devote two chapters devoted to Blanchot and Celan

in

MouriceBlanchot:TheRefusal

of Philosophy (Baltimore: lohns Hopkins University Press,

rg97),8r-ror, ("Blan-

chotiCelan: Unteruegssein [On Poetry and Freedom]"), and 45-72 ("Blanchot/


Celan: Driseuvremenr [TheTheory
Sun (San

ofthe Fragment]").

Francisco: North Point Press, 1988), 35.

179

178

3:

ro

VOICES OF CONSTRUCTION

Subjecl Ron Silliman's Albany, Susan Howe's Buffalo," Criticallnquiry 25, no.3
(Spring 9gg): 4o5-34. Howe "rarely speaks in her own person," preferring instead "the voices ofothers."
See Susan Howe,

"lnterview with lon Thompson,"

FreeVerse

11

nte mporary Liter ature 47,

no.

3 (zo o6) :

4o-7

1.

Howe's interview with lanet Ruth Falon: "Having an Irish mother and an

there was no way I could be so clever, I knew I was a foreigner.

r3

7
8

"The E nd

Yole

(r992) : r48.

where the poet summons


the mysterious one who yet
Shall walk the wet sands by the edge ofthe stream

4-zoo.

And look most like me, being indeed my double,


And prove of alI imaginable things

ostmo der n Culture 1 4, no. z (zo


Co

4) :

n.p.

ntemporary Literature 36 (tgg5): 5.

of Art," Ar chiv es of American

Art I ourn al t 4, no. 4 (rg7 4) : z.

"For Wallace Stevens," in Prepositions+:TheCollectedCriticalEssays (Hanover, N.H.:


Wesleyan University Press, zooo), z4-38.
Compare the interviewwith lanet Ruth Falon, "speakingwith Susan Howe," ln-

terviewwith lanet Ruth Falon,Diffrcukies3, no. z (1989):3s-42, onwhata painting


ofoneof Howe'spoemswould looklike: "Blank. ltwould beblank. ltwould bea
white canvas. White" (az).

William Butler Yeats, "The Circus-Animals' Desertion," in Poems, ed. David


Albright (London: Dent, 199o), 395. Compare "Ego Dominus Tuus," in Poems, zrz,

55.

"lnterview with Lynn Keller,"

rench Studies

See

The most unlike, being my anti-self.

Brian Reed, "'Eden or Ebb ofthe Sea': Susan Howe's Word Squares and Postlinear

couldn't change

"Transcending Words: Concerning Word-Erasing," trans. Didier Maleuvre,


F

Agnes Martin, "Answer to lnquiry," in Lucy Lippard, "Homage to the Square," Arr

myvoice" (4r).

offers a number of examples of "visual poetics" in "Translating the Unspeakable:


Visual Poetics, as Projected through Olson's'Field'onto Current Female Writing
Practice, " inTransloting theUnspeokable: Poetry ond thelnnovotive Necessig/ (Tuscaloosa:

Poetics, "

Ameri

ently and well." To which she later adds, ofher experience in the Irish theater as a
young girl: "lwas enthralled, happy, and at the same time not really lrish. I knew

Tina Darragh, Howe expands the notion of field to

no.4 (r967):

can father, I have a special feeling for the English language. Each spoke it differ-

no. 4 (Fall 1996): 389-4o5. See also Hank


Lazer "'singing into the Draft': Susan Howe's Textual Frontiers," in 0pposing Poetries, z: Readings (Evanston, I [[. : Northwestern University Press), 6o-69, esp. 65:
"Howe's work represents a revisualization of notions of field-composition. As

inAmerica55,

objectofwhich is, to establish

Sheridan senior's chaotically shabby country house in Quilca, County Cavan) was
for him the supreme example of elocutionary excellence" (M, 5t-52). See also

n,

t7

SOUND and MEANING;One main

lrish lexicographer's principalworrywas the deplorable state to which the pronunciation ofwritten English
had sunk in his time. He yearned for the days of the reign of Queen Anne when
he believed the language was spoken 'in its highest state o[perfection.' lonathan Swift's pronunciation (Gulliver'sTrovels was proofed for the press at Thomas

On the spatial-visual character of Howe's poetry, see Atan Golding, "'Drawings

University of Alabama Press, zooo),

lnTheMidnightHowecitesThomasSheridan'sACompleteDictionaryoftheEnglishLan'
ploinandpermanenrSTANDARDofPRONUNCIATI0N. "The

9 (Winter zoo5):

with similar writings by Olson, Williams, and Duncan, or more recent work by
a composition with the page as
unit of composition, not a line or a syllable-count or a sentence." Kathleen Fraser

(Ann Arbor, Mich. : UM I Research

On Howe's use of chaos theory, see Ming-Qian Ma, "Articulating the lnarticulate:

guage,bothwith regardro

with Words': Susan Howe's Visual Poetics," inWeWhoLovetoBeAstonished:Experi


mentalWomen'sWriting and Performance, ed. Laura Hinton and Cynthia Hogue (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, zooz), rsz-64; Craig Dworkin, "'Waging
Political Babble': Susan Howe's Visual Prosody and the Politics of Noise," Word
EImage: AlournalofVerbol/Visuallnquiry

Discourse on the 6osond 7os

Singularities and Counter-method in Susan Howe," Contemporary Literature 36, no.


3 (Autumn 1995): 466-89.

http://www.english.chass. ncsu.edu/freeverse/Archives/Winter-zoo5/interviews
/5_Howe.html; and Kaplan Harris, "Susan Howe's Art and Poetry, 968*t974,"
Co

eanne Sieg el, Amuorlds:

Press, 1985),25.

On self and alterity in Howe's work, see Nicole Marsh, "'Out of My Texts I Am Not

What I Play': Politics and Self in the Poetry of Susan Howe," College Literature 24,
no. 3 (Spring, ry97): rz4-37; and Marjorie Perloffi "Language Poetry and the Lyric

15

Anatomy ofCriticism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 196r), 96.

16

Dfficulties3, no. z (1989): zo.

17

See Steven

toria,

Collis, Through Words of )thers:

Susan Howe and Anarcho-Scholosticism

B.C.: English Literary Studies, zoo6);

(Vic-

Marjorie Perloffi, "'Collision or Co[-

lusion with History': The Narrative Lyric of Susan Howe,"

Contemporary Literature

3o, no. 4 (Winter 1989): 518-33; Ming-Qian Ma, "Poetry as History Revised: Susan
Howe's'scatteringas Behaviortoward Risk,"'AmericanLiteraryHisrory6, no. a(Winter r994): 716-37; Peter Nicholls, "Unsettling the Wilderness: Susan Howe and

American History," Contemporary Literature 37, no. 4 (Winter 1996): 586-6or; Paul
Naylor, "Susan l-lowe: Where Are We Now in Poetry?" inPoeticlnvestigotions:Study-

180
in

g the Holes in History (Evanston,

ll. : Northwestern

niversity Press, 1999), 43-7o;

Compare the following:


Or again, a human tells a story to another human being, beginning, "A certain

and Elizabeth Frost, "'UnsettlingAmerica': Susan Howe and theAntinomianTradition," inThe Feminist Avdnt-Garde in American Poetry (lowa City: University of lowa

gentleman.. ."
Which two dogs under the table overhear
The human story promPts one of the dogs to tell

Press, zoo3), 105-35. I would emphasize the antiquarian character ofHowe's his-

toricism rather more than these writers do.

18

See Robert Baker's review ofThe Midnight, "Ghosts," AmericanBookReview

(March/April

r9

zoo

4):

25,no.3

"A Textbook of Poetry," inThe

ryr-

52.

4 : A POEM ABOUT LAUGHTER AND FORGETTING

How the first-person singular works in A Border Comedy is an oPen question: the
"1" sounds sometimes like it must be the poet herself-"1 too have been too selfexpressive, self-exposed" (BC,:r); "But I should explain how l've written this"
(BC, ro8)-but more often it is as mutable or protean as the language:
Fantastica[[y spent

With the usual confusion of identities


Leading to absurd consequences
And the carrying out ofdeath (BC, 88)

"A Poetics of the Frontier," a talk Kenner delivered at the University of ldaho
in 1975 but, to my knowledge, never published. The idea is that a poetics ofthe
frontier would be modernist in its amnesiac relation to the past-starting literary history over again (almost) from scratch.

Or, again:
Friend, familiar, self rumored

Running
ln rubber shouts

"Parataxis," Hejinian writes, "is significant both of the way information is gathered by explorers and the way things seem to accumulate in nature. Composition
by juxtaposition presents observed phenomena without merging them, preserving their discrete particularity white attempting also to rePresent the matrix of

Applying estrangements

their proximity" (LI, r55). Likewise: "The popularity of the explorers' writings was
due, at least in part, to the narrative tension that was established between Per-

Willing to smash it, "1"

But that's just wordptay (BC,

could say with equalaccuracy scrawling or sPrawlingwithout


yet
not right" (MLN, 46). The moral perhaps is that no one can be
that's
limit, and

a previous self one

versity ofChicago Press, r984).

ln fact, the magician later performs a hat trick (and turns into a Pun on imagin-

contained within any pronoun.

g
ro

spider
With the allegoricaI practice that magic demands
And sets it on a surface that's either glass or a lens
the imagination's assistantwaves the wrinkled scarf and signs

ANIMAL XING (BC, to5)

rg)

from My LifeintheNineties sPrings to mind: "l 'talk to myself' and as myself,, too, notyet knowing what I myself (or better, selves) will say, what the rules
are and will become, first thought flowing in imitation of a previous thought of

A sentence

trans. Kathleen Mclaughlin and David Pellauer (Chicago: Uni-

Then with a stage wink the magician's assistant hands her the hat
The magician looks into it, removes her glove, reaches in, and gently removes a

"|',,,,

comprehension" (Ll, t57).

ation):

..

t...

ceptualty immediate details (events) and the suspenseful deferral of complete

CAUTION STEPS

ed. Robin Blaser (Santa

"l" am time after all

and amplification" (Ll, 5t).

As

Collected Books oflackSpicer,

Silently the word dives

"The Rejection ofClosure": "Language is one ofthe principal forms our curiosirytakes. lt makes us restless" (Ll, qg); "Language itselFis never in a state of
rest" (Ll, 5o); "Even words in storage, in the dictionary, seem frenetic with activity, as each individual entry attracts to itself other words as definition, example,

See

Time and Narrarive,

story of its own (BC, 7t)

Rosa, Calif.: BlackSparrow Press, r975), r76.

r8-zt.

Lionel Gossman, "Anecdote and History," History andTheory 42, no. z (zoq):

StoriesandTexrsprNothing (New York: Crove Press, tg67),

trr.

Seelean-FrangoisLyotardonphrasing:"Theparadoxofthelastphrase(orofthe
last silence), which is also the paradox ofthe series, should give x not the vertigo
ofwhat cannot be phrased (which is also called the fear ofdeath), but rather the
irrefutable conviction that phrasing is endless. For a phrase to be the last one,
another one is needed to declare it, and it is then not the last one" (D, rr).
"Short Review of Lyn Hejin ian's A Bo rder Comedy," Boston Review 28, nos. 3-4 (zoo3):
59.

182
12

183

"Found objects," in Prepositions+:The

Collected Criticol Essoys,

ed. Mark Scroggins

That tragic writers have merely to let their characters announce who they are

(Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, zooo), 168.


13

14

Whereas comic writers use original plots

It is important to notice thatA Border Comedy concludes with an extensive bibliography ofsource-texts (and conversations). So (as ifit were possible) we need to
read or re-read the poem as a vast collage ofquotations.

And start from scratch

Shifting points ofview with uninterrupted sincerity

(New

r8

York: Harper & Row, r97r), 57-uo; and lacques Derrida, "Proverb: 'He thatwould
pun . . .,"' in l. P. Leavey lr., 6lossory (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986),

r9

See

Martin Heidegger, "The Nature of Language," in 0n theWay

to Language

Here is the poet as

I Iike

to work every day


a

number ofdays have gone by, I am able to establish

a set

(London: Routledge, zooz), esp. to7.


On of the riffs in A Border Comedy is a series of citations on xenophobia, starting
[BC, rz8]) and concluding
with Virginia Woolf: "The presence of strangers may silence it, but when alone

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, "On Wit and Humour," in
(r7rr), ed. lohn M. Robertson,43(lndianapolis:
Bobbs-Merrill,
rg6+).
lt
was
Shaftesbury's idea that the great
99
man is one who is undisturbed by being laughed at. Socrates at the hands ofAris-

of

CharacteristicsofMen,Manners,)pinions,andTimes

several hours into absolute imperatives

llongto follow
itself

tophanes is the classic example.

Which gives way

selfitself

21

Now Iooking back

22

The

78-79)

See

Which I regularly update, maximize, and then allow to intensifr in the course

And what is a prompt if not something in

(BC,

ing, condemning, approving, commending, ridiculing, and deriding" (BC,tzg).

ofdemands-

beckonings, prompts

Which

in dreams

together the group of friends, with their clear complexions, sound teeth, 'tunable voices,' and plain way of speaking, grows merry in the fun of judging, admir-

creature of memory:

After

as

with Stendhal ("Sometimes you just start feeling it"

77-20.
15

for

the audience instantly to know everything

Powers of Horror : An Essay

n Abjecrion (New York: Colu

mbia University Press, r g8z), 3.

"But is it aggressive to be old / ls it pitiless, incited" (CPH, 16o).


23 One of the source-texts Hejinian frequently cites is lalal Toufic, (/ampies): AnUneosy Essay on the U ndead in Film (Barrytown, N.Y. : Station H il t Press, 1993).

To remember

What it will say (BC, tz5-26)

Cf. "The Person":

Compare this to "Comments for Manuel Brito" concerningWriting Is on Aid to


remember that the momentum of the cadence, with its departures

Memory: "1 do

5 : AMONG THE PACANS

within arrivals and arrivals within departures, was intended to push time in both
directions, 'backward' toward memory and also forward toward 'writing,'which
is always (for me) indicative of future unforeseen meanings and events." To
which Hejinian adds, anticipatingthe last four Iines just cited: "Writinggives one

Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein,

See Steve McCaffery, "Phrase

something to remember" (LI, r9z).

in Prior

r6 See My Lrp in ihe Nineries: "Shall we do some ungendering, shall we gently crossdress" (MLN, 4r). See also "The Strangeness": "ln dreams, the opposition be-

landscape-unstable, incomptete (Ll, 327).


17

lnTheFatalist"One's fate is what has happened to one, notwhat is going to happen" (F, 59). It can only be experienced in retrospect-except by those in a posi-

tion to know better:


Like other comic poets
I

should point out here

Propulsion in the Writing of Karen Mac Cormack,"

to Meaning: Protosemantic and Poetics

(Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University

Press, zoor), esp. 154-57.


lust Gaming, trans. Wlad Godzich

tween objectivity and subjectiviry is a false one. ln fact, the dream's independence from binarisms like form-content, male-female, now-then, here-there,
large-small, social-solitary, etc., is characteristic and makes polarity irrelevant
or obsolete" (Ll, t4o-4t). Recall that the border landscape is like the dream

ed. Carl Van Vechten (New York Vintage Books,

196z),473*74.

(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,

r985), 16.
See
j

Marjorie Perloff, "After Free Verse:The New Nonlinear Poetries," inPoetry0n


Essays for Emergent occdsions (Evanston, I ll. : Northwestern University

8 off the Page:

Press, r998), 14r-67.

EmptyWords:Writings'p:78 (Middletown, Conn.:Wesleyan University Press, r979),


137.

The last line of the poem explains the

title: "inwez3 the

fingers, in the same manner, as the word we" (VR, 57).

z3 is typed by the same

185

184
6:

ings,ll: rgzT-rg34, ed. Michael W. lennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cam-

THE ROCUE POET'S RETURN

bridge, Mass. : Harvard

For an account ofAlexander l(erensky's years at Stanford, see Bernard Butcher,

r3. A

"A Doomed Democrary," Stanford Magazine (lanuary/February zoor), http://www'


stanfordalumni.org/news/ma gazinelzootlianfeb/features/kerensky. html.

the Eighteenth Annual Meeting of MMLA in St. Louis, Missouri").


University ofCalifornia Press, r97r), 3-4.

TheCantosofEzra Pound (New York: New Directions, 1948), XXXV, zz. See Carroll

Notion of Expenditure lDdpensel," in


15

zoq):43-68.

"Anecdote and History," History andTheory 4z(May

Pdter Hajdu, "Hungarians' National Feryour for Anecdotes," Neohelicon 32, no.

a farmer, a craftsman, a doctor, or a

a citizen

as a relative

ofthe place."

Reading1ldFriends: Essoys, Reviews,andPoemsonPoetics,rgT5-

r99o (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, r99z), 53.

with persons than with places orthings-although

r6 IfItDie: An Autobiography, trans. Dorothy Bussy (New York: Vintage Books, rg6g), s.

see Matthias's forthcoming poem, "Cafd des Westens: Kurfurstendamm," where


Berlin is the name of a carriage (LaBerlinorrltdedanslanuit) and Berlinerthe name of

t7

doughnut.

In an unpublished poem, "Caf6 des Westens: Kurflirstendamm," Matthias writes:


Did you know I wrote an honors thesis

See, however, Mumar Prasad Mukherji, The LosrWorld ofHindustoni Music (New York:

at Ohio State on lsherwood?

Oxford University Press, zooT).

Yes and

Anton Z. Capri, who writes serious histories of physics, but who is also the
author of Quips, Quotes, and Quanta: An Anecdotal History ofPhysics (New York World

but helped me out

See

lot and introduced me

trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael


Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, tgSt), z4-26.

r8 "Epic and Novel," inTheDialogiclmagination,

to (New York Harcourt Brace, r94o). See also Bruce Adams, Tiny Revolutions in Russia:
Twentieth-Century Soviet ond Russia n History in Anecdotes (New York: Routledge, zoo5).

"l am indebted,

19

as in Turns
passagfancies,
for
facts,
and Bucyrus, to an odd assortment ofbooks and authors
es ofverse or of prose, translations, information, scholarship and scandal which
I have had occasion in these poems to quote, plagiarize, wiltfutly ignore, tact-

fully modifr, stupidly misconstrue, or intentionally travesty" (C, rzr)' The poet
Hermes, or thief.

met him once or twice. Flakey don'tyou know

to his more important friends.


More important any-lvay than he was.

Scientific Publishing, zooT), where seriousness would be seriously out ofplace.

The bibliographical note to Crossings reads similarly:

teacher-but

writer who, though he might experience and describe


the place in fresh and unfamiliar ways, would never be fully integrated with its
life unless he stayed and worked there. I was more than a tourist but less than

ohn Matthias, " inWord, Play, Place: Essays on the Poetry of )ohn Matthias, ed. Robert Archambeau (Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, r998), r33-53. Bergen emphasizes, quite
rightly, the prominence of place-names in Matthias's poetry. Anecdotes, how

12

Matthias's essay "Places and Poems: A Self-Reading and a Reading of the Self
in the Romantic Context from Wordsworth to Parkman," in which he remarks
on his relation to Suffolk, England-his wife's "place": "l arrived in Suffolk, after
all, unconsciously seeking 'a refuge or escape from an unmanageable or unlovable society or nation' [leremy Hooker]. And I didn't live there like a native of the
and friend of natives and

of

l1

Visions of Excess; Selecred Writings, tg27-tg3g,

See

place-whether

(zoo5): tzt-27.

translation ofthe chapter that details the execution is available online at http://

trans. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: Universiry of Minnesota Press, t985), rzo.

World War I experience as a line officer lPai, z-3, 4rr-r4)."

ever, have usually more to do

ress, rggg), 442.

price is a mediocre activity, subordinated to vulgar and superficial needs." "The


F.

Terrell, A Comp anion toThe Cantos of Ezra Pound (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1993), 139: "Mr. Corles: Alfred Perlds, Austrian-born writerwhom Pound
met at a restaurant in ry34. During lunch Perlds told the anecdote about his

See Brooke Bergen, "A Gathering of Proper Names: The Onomastic Poetics

t4 See Maurice Blanchot, TheSpaceofLiterarure, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University


of Nebraska Press, rg8z), esp.237-38. Compare Georges Bataille's depiction of
the poet: "The poet frequently can use words only for his own loss; he is olten
forced to choose beflveen the destiny ofa reprobate, who is as profoundly separated from sociery as dejecta are from apparent life, and a renunciation whose

forexample, "The Next Hundred Years," BulletinoftheMidwestModernLanguage


Association 1o, no. l (1977): t-ro ("The following is a variation in writing of the Bicentennial Lecture which Professor Kenner presented on November 5, ry76, at
ThePoundEra (Berkeley:

niversity

www. bhutto. org/lastmoments. htm.

See,

Balletmicaniquewas never performed as

originally conceived until the r99os when

the composer PauI Lehrman produced

version electronically, which is available

on YouTube in tvvo versions: as the restored soundtrack to Fernand Ldger's ry24


film of the same name, and as a "robotic" performance at the National Gallery
of Art in zoo4, both produced by Lehrman. See http://www.americancomposers
.org/antheil/lehrman.htm for Lehrman's account of his digital reconstruction of

as

Antheil's work.

"Karl Kraus" (r93r), trans. Edmund lePhcott, in Waltt'r llt'tri,rtttitr, Sclcrtrrl Writ-

186
20. An account of their invention, for which they received a Patent in ry42, is available online: http ://inventions.org/culture/female/larmarr. html.

zr

Claire's lines describe

a scene

from L'lnhumaine;

I'm some kind of cubist cotd fish, the girt

without any mother born a machine who can nevertheless sing


and I stare down those rioting plebs at the Champs Elysdes
alive in the intervalA absconditus diminished

William
"George
the
First
A
Note
on
Antheil
and
the
Cantildne
Critics:
Williams,
Carlos
(April
ro,
inlmaginations
in
New
York
City
Performance of Antheil's Music
ry27),"
(New York New Directions, tgZo), :S:-SZ.
Antheil,andtheTreatiseonHarmony (Chicago: Pascal Covici, rgzT),5t-52. See

To

Cited by Prynne (P,38r).

ln his long "ovewiew" of Prynne's work that appeared in

Other possibilities include Samuel Beckett's mouth-play,

Each
t

Oxlorl

ofthe hundreds or thousands ofparts that go into a washing nrach i ne or

truck or

ball-bearing factory has to be motivated by economically expresscd

demand. They are not going to do it

as a

form ofselFexpression, and even ifthey

wanted nothing better than to contribute to the well-being of mankind, this


would nottell them what to make in their semiconductor plant.

Benevolence is not enough.

Even love of semiconductors is not enough.

Among

those who have to think ofnew things to do and new and more efficientways to

which Matthias adds a lengthy endnote comprising twenry-six Iines of permu-

do them, there seems no substitute for the market as a source of information

(tzr-zz; my emphasis).
the kedging

The epigraph from Nagel might be related to the fact that there is, as elsewhere

9843: ofthe quantum ofthe zero ofthe one ofthe watcher


of the disambiguating of the decoherence
9844: ofthe end ofthe quantum ofthe zero
of the watcher of the disambiguating

in Prynne's work, a good deal of industria[-technological-economic

ofthe one

Lights go forward to flight assessment checks


up to roof limit,

ofthe beginning ofthe end ofthe quantum ofthe zero

9847: ofthe laughter ofthe law ofthe beginning ofthe end

ofthe quantum ofthe zero. . . .


9858: ofthe virus ofthe tool ofthe groin ofthe depth
ofthe surface ofthe language
9859: ofthe hand ofthe virus ofthe tool ofthe groin
ofthe depth ofthe surface
986o: ofthe foot ofthe hand ofthe virus ofthe tool
ofthe groin ofthe depth
986r: ofthe squeeze ofthe foot ofthe hand ofthe virus
ofthe tool ofthe groin
9862: ofthe toe ofthe squeeze ofthe foot ofthe hand
ofthe virus ofthe tool (K, 175-76)

will rake up the card for

new scores in anti-trust recita[. A timid start

ofthe law ofthe beginning ofthe end ofthe quantum

ofthe zero ofthe one

vocabulary

in "Not-You," as in the following:

ofthe one ofthe watcher


9846:

Nor l.

University Press, r99r), rzr. The problem underdiscussion is what ntotivates l)eople in an egalitarian society that is also market-driven:

tations. A couple ofexcerpts:

9845:

z4 Kevirr Nolrn

title: "'l hate,' from hate away she threw, / And saved my life sayirrg'trot you."'

the Prehistory of the Novel, " inThe Dialogic lmaginotion, 5S-59.

g84z: . . . of the decoherence of

Jocket

The epigraph is taken from Thomas Nagel, Equoliry and Panioliry (Oxtbrtl:

howeveryou tike (WP,8)

See " From

GARBACE TO LANCUAGE

proposes the final couplet ofShakespeare's sonnet r45 as the source oI l)ryttttc's

They catt me the austere Mademoiselle Claire Lescot.

z3
z4

7 : ADDINC

It's me, it is l, on the screenl

zz

187

for integer placing, spurred on by incessant


false alerts at re-entry: diagnose and record

atthe same overlay. (P, aor)

valiant (and ground-breaking) essay on "Not-You," the poet Iohn Wilkinson


observes: "The sum of the lines of the middle suite and the sum of the lines of
the two suites of eight poems with epigraphs, are equal to t49." See "Counterfac-

tual Prynne: An Approach to Not-you,"

ln

Parataxis: Modernism and ModernWriting,

no.

g (rg96): 196. A counterfactual is (loosely) a state of what might-have-been, or


what could be, given a different set of conditions, which Wilkinson associates
(rightly) with David Lewis's arguments in favor of possible or alternative worlds.
An alternative world is what, for Wilkinson, the second epigraph, "Love of semiconductors is not enough," refers us to, namely the formalized world of digital
interactions (as opposed to the social order ofspeech-acs) that make possible
algebra-like transactions that, on Wilkinson's reading, hold "Not-You" together.
Wilkinson's essay is reprinted in his recentvolume of essays,TheLyricTouch:Reconsrrucrions (Cambridge: Salt Publishing , zooT),5-2o. See Robin Purves's response

189

188
to Wilkinson, "Apprehension: Or, I. H. Prynne, His Critics, and the Rhetoric of
His Art," 6ig, no. z (March 1999): 45-6o, esP. 58-59: "lt is nevertheless the case
that the features whose foregrounding constitutes poetry as Poetry are features
which, in their subordination of communicable meaning to visual and acoustic
patternings, to semantic and syntactic ambiguities, by definition must gener-

that there does prevail in P a convention oftruthfulness in L+, sustained by an


interest in communication" (r87). It is possible that there is a L+ whose sentences
are garbage in t (the language used, for example, by you and me, or P) but which
is nevertheless usable somewhere as a language, that is, able to satis! the "convention of truthfulness . . . sustained by an interest in communication."

ate a surplus of variable, complementary and contrasting meanings along the


course oFeach reading, a surplus which increases in line with the relative density
of those patternings and ambiguities." This seems on the mark: indeterminacy is
not a loss but a gain in determinability. See also a whimsical essay on " Not You, "
entitled "Knot-You!" by Ben Watson, writing under the name of Out to Lunch
(a frequent contributor to Parataxis: Modernism and ModernWriting), pubtished in

On the question ofgarbage, see Ben Watson, "Garbage: A Discussion ofValue,"


Pores:AJournalofPoeticsResearch, no. r (October zoo3),

See Prynne's Stars,Tigers, and the Shapes of Words,

given on page r8:


Literary uses oflanguage, and literate ways ofreading and interpreting the effect

ofsuch language, are

a challenging test to this hypothesis [that language is a


selFregulating system ofdifferences more or less refractory to the uses made
ofitl, because the forms and devices ofliterary discourse bring forward with

depression before resuming'normality'; the comPuter'blip'of a heartbeat; the


lie detector's response to the voice calling Carlsberg 'the best lager in the world.'
Using this graph as a'map,'the language of the poems becomes less discursive
efflorescence than wordplay under duress, commenting on the structure as it

especial prominence a range ofmaterial effects (echo, repetition, sound-devices


and positionaI patterns) which seem conspicuously arbitrary. At the same time
the distinctively literary nature of the literary text marks it for reading with a

heightened sense ofthe accumulated layers and aspects ofassociation which


form the significatory resonances ofprevious usage: the whole prior history of
the language-community can be tuned to allow and invite the vibrations of sense
and suggestion and historical retrospect. lt is not the lexicon which carries these

both forms it and beats against its limits" (5).


Convention

r,

(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969), r94. See Stephen

"Actua l- Lan guage Relatio ns,

"

Philo sophical Perspectiv es

7 (1993) :

4r-58,

esp.23z-3g ("Lewis on the Actual-Language Relation").

data so much as the encyclopaedia and the historical thesaurus and some ide-

York: Oxford University Press, 1983), r:167. The essay is


atso widely anthotogized, as in Heimir Geirsson and Michael Losonsky, eds.,
Phitosophical Popers (New

Readings in Langua ge and Mind (Oxford : Basi I

ln his

essay

lackwe I [, I 996), t38.

on "Not-You" Wilkinson writes: "A catastroPhic collapse in the

conditions of trust is a given in contemporary cultural commentary" (t94). For


Wilkinson this collapse is one of the implications of Prynne's title-a reiection
of social conditions (and therefore of Lewis's actual-language theory)-in favor
of computational languages of artificial intelligence, among other forms of rulegoverned discourse, including various versions ofstructuralist linguistics against
which Prynne had aimed his arguments in his Birkbeck lectures, Stars,Tigers, ond
the Shapes ofWords

(London: Birkbeck College, 1993).

David Lewis is famous for his arguments in support of possible worlds with variable and even bizarre truth conditions that are (somewhere) as actual as the one

we inhabit, which answers more or less to the laws of scientific reason and the
propositional style of philosophical reasoning. Our universe is only one among
"l
an infinity ofalternatives, and the same goes, as he says, with our languages:
way
not
seen
any
I
have
but
sense,
agree that L+ is not used by P, in any reasonable
to avoid conceding that L+ is a possible language [thatl might really be

http://www.bbk.ac.uk/pores/.
"Does the form of the written

word have a sense-bearing relation to its meaning? Does the sound of the word
express, or modifi, or in any way contribute to, its sense?" An answer of sorts is

lnvolution 22, no. 4 0Sg6): r-g, which approaches the poem as a series oftexts
whose spatial and visual features form a graph that "variously resembles: a transcendent experience (drug-triggered, psychic or sexual) followed by a period of

Sch i ffe

used-and

ally synoptic dictionary ofquotations: to the functions of language as code and

framework have been added those ofdep6t-inventory and memory-theatre.


11

In "Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy" Stanley Cavell makes the point


that there is no way we can make modernist art (for example, serial music) coherent with traditional concepts of what counts as art. In order to come to terms
with modernism, he says, we need to change-to "naturalize ourselves to a new
form of life, a newworld." MustWeMeanWhatweSay? (Cambridge: Cambridge Universiry Press, 196g), B+.

12

In contemporary poetics parataxis is often cited as the principal technique of


collage, metonymy, open form, and so on to no definite term. Gertrude Stein's
Tender Buttons (r9rz) is the locus classicus. Recall, for example, Lyn Hejinian, "The
Rejection ofClosure" and "strangeness" (Ll, 4o-58, 135-6o). See also Rosmarie
Waldrop, "Thinkingof Follows," in Dissonance(ifyouareinteresred) (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, zoo5), esp. zro-rr. For a brief polemic against "openness," see lohn Wilkinson, "Tenter Ground," inTheLyricTouch, zr-32. The idea

well but one should not read too much


into them, much less suppose that "anything goes" with respect to what we can

seems to be that open forms are all very

say

about them. ln Wilkinson's view, open forms encourage altogether too much

190

r,; ii J !r: .,;

i i1

191

r:; :; :.: * i:

special pleading, as, for example, in behalf of pointless egalitarianism and the
body as the last remnant of authenticity. See, however, page 154 on "mestastasis"

Durqtion: nextmonthQuonriry: one, a bundle

Poem 7: Tronsocrion; market Intenrion: to pitch, to packDirecrion: turning, falling


Durqtion: so soon, no more Quontigl: too high, lesser

of poetic composition. Compare Prynne's "A Letter to Steve Mccafdated


fery,"
lanuary z, ry89, reprinted in 6ig, no. 7 (November zooo)'. 4o*46, a
gnarly
complaint against the idea that in poetry "the text is released
dense and
as a process

Poem 8: Tronsoction: won, bldder lnrention: to beat, to shun Direction: ahead, over
(c/f poem r) Duration'. cut-back, dying year Quanti4r twice (c/f poem r) ("Counterfactual
Prynne," r98)

from its fixed displacement out of a function-relation, its tokenised status as


fetish, by beinggiven overto readers as a class ofindividuals actively installed

Attieri, "An Aspect of Prynne's Poetics: Autonomy as a Lyrical ldeal,"


(Decemberz
oot):42-43: "Autonomy for Prynne is nota matteroFmasro
Gig,no.
ofcreating
an adequate self-referential alternative to the real.
tering the reaI nor

It would be churlish to complain about the complexity of Wilkinson's systeminvoking, like a dreary schoolmaster, the iron rule Occam's razor-because the
system forces one to attend closely to the words of the poem, which do seem to
be governed by some echo principle. Whether the system turns garbage into a
garden will depend on how patient one is with the workings of the system. As for
reading Prynne as if he were a language poet: there are certainly family resemblances, and the paratactic form of Prynne's sentences would likely prove posi-

Rather it is a way of defining one's strength precisely by the degree to which one's

tive in any DNA test.

in the position of controlling the choices of their own consumPtion, to be renamed as production: the open text, the inventive, selective teader, free to opt for
useful waste or wastefuI

13

utility"

(41).

See Charles

poem can encompass the semantic dispersal created by the effort to match language to experience. . . . Autonomy is what poems accomplish as linguistic structures, not what selves can use as mirrors for their own imaginary projections."

r4

See

The NewSentence (New

TheEngineering of Being: An7ntological Approachtol.H. Prynne (Ume5, Sweden: Swedish

Science Press, r997), r7o.

lutlineofaGeneralTheoryof
trans. D. H. Fowler (Reading, Mass.: W. A. Benjamin, 1975).

rth of lntention : Criticol W riti n gs, 1gt S-tg 86 ( New Yo

rk:

ROO F Boo

ks, r 986), r 3-29,

20t*2t.

York: ROOF Books, r9B7), 8t-82.

16 Inafineessay,"lnterlocatingl.H.Prynne,"DavidPunterwrites:

r7

19

Ren6Thom, StructuralstabiliryandMorphogenesis:An

Models,

r5

r8 (London: Heinemann Medical Books, 196z).

VisionsofExcess; SelectedWritings, lgzl-tg3g, trans. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: Universityof Minnesota Press, 1985), rzo.

"Letmesuggest

that Prynne's poetry is a poetry of ruins. lt is a Poetry that realises that meaning
is not something to be coherently constructed; on the contrary, it is a continual
process of falling down, and the most that can be done is to attempt to prop up
bits ofthe collapsing landscape, to seek form in the very process ofthings melting away or prodigiously multiplying." CambridgeQuarterly 3r, no. z(zooz): rz5-26.

22

Gig,

23

See SelectedWorls of Alfred larry, ed. Roger Shattuck and

Wilkinson constructs a rather interesting model of systematic operations linking


the phrases that make up the first eight lyrics of the poem:

24 Bcik, 'Parophysics, 9, 38. The word "interferential" means: "Of, pertaining to, or
operating by, wave-interference: spec. belonging to interference of light waves"

no.7 (November zooo): 45.


Simon Watson Taylor (New

York: Crove Press, 1965); and Christian Bok,'Pataphysics:ThePoeticsofanlmaginary


Science

(Evanston, Il[.: Northwestern Universiry Press, zooz).

(oED).

Poem r: Transaction: in/decision lntension: to thread-out, to whack, to break Direction:


ahead, over Durarion: at femur length Quonrio,: double, twins, alternative, two
Poem z: Tronsaction: promise lnrention: to praise, to please Direction: inside, together
Duration'.

8: ANOMALIES OF DURATION IN CONTEMPORARY

time rate Quantiry: fifty more, poly

Poem 3: Transocrion: choose lntention: to observeDirection: end-up, in front Durorion: to

Codeof Signals:RecentWritingsin Poetics, ed.

length Quonriry: everything, more or less, nothing

Atlantic Books, r983), 244.

Poem 4: Tronsocrion; in decision, intent Inrention: to reach back Direction: on the low
side, lifting, altitude, next Duration: be ready Quanriry: the amount
Poem 5: Transoction: the best we took it Intention: to step Direcrion: front, back, beneath
Durotion: by the hour, quite slowlyQuontity: one, one
Poem 6: Transcction: pay-out lntention: to play, to eqtral, to brcak l)irt'rtion: hack, rises

POETRY

Michael Palmer (Berkeley, Calif.: North

Michael Palmer, FirstFrgure (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 60.

See

l. M. Gelfand and

S. V.

Fomin, AColculusofVariations, trans. Richard A. Silver-

man (Englewood, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1963).

"After Olson and Celan: The Breadth and Twist of the Referent," AmericanPoetry
Review 24, no. 4 (luly/August r995): 9-16. See Alice Fulton, "Of Formal, Free, and

193

192
Fractal Verse: Singing the Body Electric,"
Strangenessof Poetry (St. Paut,

Minn.:

in

The notion that most ofcontemporary poetry has abandoned issues ofprosody

Feeling as a Foreign Language:The Good

. . . may not only be mistaken, but fails to recognize the narrow way in which
modern and contemporary critics define prosody" (ro). One should also consult
the chapter titled "Rhythms" in Hugh Kenner, The Poetry of Ezra Pound (London:

Crapvolf Press, 1999), 43-6o.

(London: Barque Press, zoo5), 5.

In "The Creat Refusal" Blanchot speaks of impossibility as a dimension of time


in which time is "the dispersion of a present that, even while being only passage
does not pass, never fixes itselfin a present, refers to no past and goes toward no

Faber & Faber, r95r; repr., Lincoln, Neb.: Bison

52,

twenty to hundreds of beats per minute). See, for example, Marjorie Perlofl
"Filling Space with Trace: Tom Raworth's 'Letters from Yaddo,"' in Differentiols:
Poetry,Poetics,Pedagogy (Tuscaloosa: University ofAlabama Press, zoo4), zz\-zg.
5o naturally one asks-as did Charles Bernstein in an interview-whether there
is any connection betvveen his heart condition and the irregularity of his poetic
line (Raworth answered, "No."). See "Tom Raworth, Conversation with Charles
Bernstein on Close Listening, March 13, zoo6," http://www.writing.upenn.edu/

ofthose contingencies oflanguage, script, and print that make up


the relational landscape of poetry." http://www.iacketmagazine.com/3r/jones
-jarvis.htmt. Early in the poem these lines appear:
an awareness

Iwrite whatgets taken into my mouth.


lust as it is I can and do affirm,
just as it undelimitably is,
just as a single affirmation sings

Pennsound/x/Close-Listening. php.
15

age not

(The Unconditionol,

t7

(London: Goliard Press, r97r), n.p.

zg-3o)

consult'A" (Berketey: University ofCalifornia Press, 1978),


rz4. (Copyright restrictions prevent me from citing passages from Zukofsky's

(NewYork Random House, 1968), zo.

See

Curtis Faville's review

r9

However, Iohn Wilkinson does not think the poem is quite so abstract. See his
essay, "Tripping the Light Fantastic: Tom Raworth's Ace," in Removed for Further
Study:ThePoetryofTomRaworth, ed. Nate Dorward (Toronto:The

(Baltimore: lohns Hopkins University Press,rggT),2o3.


See Abagail Lang, "The Remembering Words, or 'How Zukofsky Used Words,"'
and Louis
Jacket3o (luly zoo6), http://www.jacketmagazine.com/3o/z-tang.html;
N'H':
(Hanover,
Scroggins
Mark
ed.
in
Prepositions+,
"An
Objective,"
Zukofsky,
CompleteShorrPoer,y

13.

rz See "Poetry: ForMySonWhen He Can Read," in Prepositiot'ts+, to'


r3 on the fate of meter in contemporary poetry see Douglas Messerli,

of

zooT), http://lvww. jacketmagazine.com/34/faville-saroyan-grenier.shtml.

work.)

Wesleyan University Press, 20oo),

at Birbeck College,

Saroyan's Complete MinimalistPoems, "stone Cutting All the Way," )acket34 (October

Here the reader should

rc
n

Ace

Bigslippers 0n is also available at http://www.writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/


Raworth.html.

r8 Aramsaroyan

gutter to drop the outsided double me

wilI never close.

of

Written Poem," 1ralTradition zo,

16
oF-

point I false first person must

so this parenthesis

no. r (zoo5), 7*34, esp. r7-zt.

or Age ofProse like no prose ever heard

as at some

Peter Middleton gives an account of Raworth's reading

London, in zoo3, in "How to Read a Reading of

the tunelessest selected tesserel

ofprose but rather ofa dim


laborious deafness as the condition
just as it is or just as it is not-

ro9-r8.

quently cited is that he was one ofthe first people to undergo open-heart surgery, and that he suffers from cardiac arrhythmia (his heart-rate can vary from

nos' z-4 (Autumn zoo6): 37t.


See Tom lones's review of the poem in Jocket 3r (October zoo6): "The poem is
constituted by an account of its own accidental relations in coming into being,

"The Unconditional," ChicagoReview

1985),

r4 (Washington, D.C.: Edge Books, zoor), n.p. A fact aboutTom Raworth that is fre-

future: rheincessont" (lC, 45).


7

Book,

Gig,zoq),45*6o,

esp. 153-54; and also in this volume, Tom Orange, "Notes for a Reading ofAce,"

r6r-69.
20 See Clark Coolidge, "From Notebooks
21

seuen PogesMissing,l:SelectedTexts,

(r976-tg8z)," inCodeofSignals, t74.

1969-1999 (Toronto: Coach House

Book, zooo),

83.

"The Rhythms

ofthe'Language' Poets," Paper presented atthe rgBz annual meeting ofthe Modern Language Association, http://www.greeninteger.blogspot.com/roo8/o9/
rhythms-of,language-poets.html. Referring to the poetry of Charles Bernstein
and Ted Greenwald, Messerli writes: "l am only speculating that the rhythms of
such poets may have prosodic roots in traditions othcr th;ln spccch an<l song.

directions for his "Asymmetries": "fhe duradons of


(or
instrumentaI tones) are dt leasr those of single words or word strings
silences
that might be printed in equivalent spaces, as they would be spoken aloud by
the individual reader. That is, the reader is silent or prolongs sounds at least as
long as it would take him to speak such space-equivalent words. However, one
See Mac Low's performance

may, in performance, extend these durations whenever one feels that the total

195

194
performance would be 'better' if one remained silent or continued to prolong
the sound one is making."

Meanwhile ioppementsdlalune is also the title of a musicalwork (for mezzo-soprano and nine instruments) by the contemporary Canadian composer Christopher

RepresentativeWorks, 1938*1985 (New York: ROOF Books,

Butterfield.

tg86), zo7.
23

Selected Poems (New

BeingandTime, trans.

York: Charles Scribner's Sons, t976), 5o.

24 ShorterPoems (Normal,

lll.: DalkeyArchive

Row, 196z),

Press, 1993), 93'

(NewYork Grove Press, zooo),289.

[engravings]" (0ED).
'Pataphysics:ThePoeticsof anlmaginaryScience (Evanston,

35).

WordVirus:The Willionr S. Burroughs Reader, ed. James Grauerholz and lra Silverberg

25 A tea caddy is a (frequently silver or pewter) container for tea leaves. "Lobate"
means "having or characterized by lobes" (0ED). Plasma is "a green variety of
chalcedony, a semi-precious stone, and formerly used for carving into intaglios

26

lohn Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper &

zu-r4 (section

Postulates of Linguistics, " in AThousand Plateaus,76.

"

10

Georges Bataille's concept of ddpense, or the nonproductive expenditure

Il[.: Northwestern Univer-

ergy, wealth, words, work, and so

of Expenditure," in

sity Press, zooz),8.

forth, is essentially

ofen-

ludic. See "The Concept

Visions ofExcess: SelectedWritings, r9z7-rg3g,

trans. Allan Stoekl

(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), tr6-29. See also McCaffery,

"Writing

9 : NOMAD

ll

POETRY

See W. V. O.

Quine,

Word and

zor-zt).

)bject (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 196o), z:

Aware of the points thus far set forth, our philosopher may still try, in a spirit

McCaffery's method is not exactly citational but work as a kind of erasure. In an


essay titled "lackson Mac Low: Samsara in Lagado," McCaffery notes that "Mac
Low's writings are produced only

as a GeneraI Economy" (NI,

rationaI reconstruction, to abstract out

a pure stream

of

ofsense experience and

then depict physical doctrine as a means ofsystematizing regularities discernible


in the stream. He may imagine an ideal "protocol language" which, even if in
fact learned after common-sense talk of physical things or not at a[[, is eviden-

atthe expense ofthe lossofonorhertext" (PM, r96)'

Guattari on "nomadology" inAThousandPlateaus:Capr


talismandschizophrenia,trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: universityof Minne-

See Gilles Deleuze and F6[ix

tially prior:

fancifully fanryless medium of unvarnished news. Talk of ordinary

sota Press, tg87),369.

physical things he would then see as, in principle, a device for simplifring that

lf one follows that quintessentiaI nomad, Walter Benjamin, one would say that
"deich" and "taihun" are merely adumbrations of the "pure language" in which
whatwe call "ten" reposes in immobile, unspeakable serenity. ln "TheTask ofthe

disorderly account ofthe passing show.

Translator" Benjamin writes:

See

t3

Trans. MargaretWaller (NewYork: Columbia University Press, 1984),256.n85. The


citation is from Leon S. Roudiez, "Twelve Points fromTelQuel," L'EspritCreateur4,

Whereas in the various tongues that ultimate essence, the pure language, is tied
only to tinguistic elements and their changes, in linguistic creations it is weighted

no. z (Winter r974):3oo. See McCaffery, "The Martyrology as Paragram" (NI, 63-66).

atien meaning. To relieve it of this, to turn the symbolizing into the


symbolized itsetf, to regain pure language fully formed from the linguistic flux,
is the tremendous task of translation. ln this pure Ianguage-which no longer

with

a heavy,

"The Man with the Blue Guitar," inThe

15

stratum in which they are destined to be extinguished.

SelectedWritings,l: 1913-19z6, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W.
lennings (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), z6t. One might say

that McCaffery's poem traverses this stratum in which "all information, sense,
and all intention" are finally "extinguished."

Collected Poems of Wallace Steuens

(New York:

Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), 176.

means or expresses anything but is, as exPressionless and creative Word, that
which is meant in all [anguages-all information, sense, and all intention finally

encounter

the Czech poet Ladislav Nebesky's "Non-written Words," http://www.thing.


net/-grist/ld/czech/Nebesky. pdf.

t2

Art-Longuoget, no. r (1969): t4.

1O

ON THE CONUNDRUM OF FORM AND MATERIAL

Perhaps
;

not many will agree that form is a key concePt for Adorno. Lambert

Zuidervaart touches on form only in passing inAdorno'sAestheticTheory:TheRedemp'

Cited by McCaffery (Nl, t7t).

lorge Luis Borges, Ficciones, ed. Anthony Kerrigan (New York: Grove Press, t96z),

r99r), esp. rz3-25, rz8-3o, 166-68 (see


note 2 below). Christopher Menke, meanwhile, think that form and material
are "borderline" concepts. See AestheticTheory: AexhericNegativiE in Adorno ond Der'
rida (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1gg8),74.Shierry Weber Nicholson attaches

83.

more importance to the question of form in Exoctlmagination,LateWork:OnAdorno's

l
l
l
l

ff

tion oflllusion (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press,

q
Aesrhetics

197
systematic or determinate ordering of its materials, preferring collstarr t t lr.t trlit'
( ()lrl("\
and even accident, a protean shape and even aleatory method." see also

(Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999), ro3-35 ("ConfigurationaI Form in

the Aesthetic Essay and the Enigma of AestheticTheory"), where configurational (or

book on serial form, unending

constellational) form is paratactic, like the form ofAesthericTheory itself. See Ninhi
Kinya, "Form Should Not Be Tautological: Hegel and Adorno on Form," Japanese
lournol of Aesthetics 47, no. r (1996): 2536.1am indebted to l. M. Bernstein's discusPolity Press, r99z), esp. 197*2o6.

would fulfill the demands of a materialistic-dialectical aesthetics. Art acquires its


specificity by separating itself from what it developed out of: its law of movement
is its law of form. lt exists only in relation to its other; it is the process that tran-

spires with its other" (AT, 3).

Actually, I think Adorno could find a place for Duchamp in his aesthetics by observing that the readymades are not just pund objects but have been staged, that
is, recontextualized and, therefore, implicitly conceptualized as art. Founrdin may
be, empirically, a urinal, butwith its signature, "R. Mutt," and its displacement

from the world of commodities to the exhibition, gallery, studio, museum, or


history of art, it has been transformed into something other. See Marjorie Perloff,

Adorno's is, to be sure, a "negative aesthetics" in lohanna Drucker's sense of


this term in her critique of the snobbery of academic theory, which (like Adorno) wants to keep the work of art separate from the social order (mass culture,
consumer culture, the art market), and which "has rigidified into predictable
categories of thought, each identifiabte by their characteristic vocabulary of the
'abject,' the'subversive,' the'transgressive,' the'resistant,' or other negative
keyword." see sweet Dreams: contemporary Art and Compliciry (chicago: university of
chicago Press, zoo5), xv. ButAdorno's aesthetics is also negative in the sense in
which his dialectical thinking is negative, namely that he conceives the modernist artwork as an expression of the struggle of form and material-in contrast say
to the classical or humanist (or Yeatsian) aesthetic ofspreaachura, where the idea

"The Conceptual Poetics of Marcel Duchamp," inztst-Century Modernism;The"New"


(Oxford : Basi I B lackwe I l, zo oz),

8-tt 4.

See David Roberts, ArtandEnlightenment:AestheticTheoryafterAdorno

versiry of Nebraska Press, r99t),

(Lincoln: Uni-

is

gz.

ro

See Hauke Brunkhorst, "lrreconcilable Modernity: Adorno's Aesthetic Experimentalism and the Transgression Theorem," trans. Colin Sample, inThe Actualiry
of Adorno:CriticalEssaysonAdornoandthePostmodern,

ed. Max Pensky (Albany, N.Y.:

q-il,

esp. 46. See also Susan Buck-Morss, TheOriginofNegative


Dialectics:TheodorW. Adorno,Walter Benjamin, and the Fronkfurr Instirure (New York: Free

SUNY Press, rggT),

Press, r977),63-8r ("The Logic

"seriality and the Contemporary Long Poem," Sogetrieb u,


(Spring/Fall rygz): 35-45, esp. 37: "The series describes the complicated and
often desultory manner in which one thing follows another. lts modular forrn
which individual elements are both discontinuous and capable o[
-in
recombination-distinguishes it from the thematic development or narrative

to conceal the Iabor of art-making.

67-68: "The best works ofart respect the


do not force an identity ofform and conand
nonidenticaI
ofthe
unique identity
ofthe one and the many. In
reconciliation
peaceful
fragile
a
tent. They achieve
synthesis
nonviolent
is
a
such works, artistic form
Preserving divergent and con-

See Zuiderv aart, Adorno's AesrheticTheory ,

tradictory impulses, somethings even susPending itself for the sake of disparate
content. Adorno thinks of artistic form as an identity that makes the nonidentical less alien but lets it remain distinct. " Cf. r99: "For an artwork to be successful,
its form must preserve traces ofthe amorphousness that form tends to repress."

oIDisintegration: The Object").

lndeed, as l. M. Bernstein says, the aim of dialectical thinking is not to resolve


contradictions but to experience them reflectively. See Bernstein, "Negative Dialectic as Fate: Adorno and Hegel," inThe Cambridge Companionto Adorno, ed. Thomas
Huhn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, zoo4). 19-50, esp. 35-39.

N.Y.:

guage is hostile to the particular and nevertheless seeks its rescue. Language
mediates the particular through universality and in the constellation of the universal, but it does justice to its own universals onlywhen they are not used rigidly
in accord with the semblance of their autonomy but are rather concentrated to
the extreme on what is specifically to be expressed" (AT, zo4)'

"Art," says Adorno, "can be understood onty by its laws of movement, not according to any set of invariants. lt is defined by its relation to what it is not. The
specificatly artistic in art must be derived concretely from its other; that alone

Poetics

(lthaca,

In the section of AestheticTheo6r on "Universals and Particulars" Adorno writcs:


"That universal elements are irrevocably part of art at the same time that art opposes them, is to be understood in terms of art's likeness to language. For lan-

sion ofAdorno's aesthetics in TheFateofArt: AestheticAlienationfromRonttoDerrido and


Adorno (Cambridge:

Design:The Forms of Postmodern Poetry

CornelI UniversitY Press, r99r).

See also f ames

Martin Harding,

Adorno and

"AWriting of the Ruins":

AexheticsandAnglo-AmericanLiteratureandculture

Essays on Modern

(Albany, N.Y.: sUNY Press, 1997),

z6-47 (" AestheticTheory and Fragmenting the Unities of Negation")'

See foseph Conte,

Ir

Huhn, "Adorno's Aesthetics of lllusion," lournal of Aesthetics and Art


\o.3(winter 1985): t8r-8g. See also Fredric lameson's discussion of

See Thomas

criricism

44,

the"crisisofschein" inLateManism:or,AdornoandthePersistenceoftheDiolecric(New

York: Verso, r99o), t65-76.

rz

progressionthatcharacterizeothertypesofthelongpocnt. Iltcst'ricsrcsistsa

Recall Adorno on the essay as

form: "Even in its manner of its presentation, the

199

198
essay may not act as though it had deduced its object and there was nothing left

to say about it. lts self-relativization is inherent in its form: it has to be constructed as though it could always break off at any point. lt thinks in fragments, just as
reality is fragmentary, and finds its unity in and through the breaks and not by
glossing them over" (NL, r:16).
13

Compare this to what Adorno says in his essay "schcinberg and Progress": after
complaining that the twelve-tone method is simply the working of a "self-posited system of rules," he goes on to observe the ways in which in his late work
Schonberg would interrupt the system. ln particular: "The need to finish works
was unknown to him." Philosophy of New Music, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, zoo6), 94.
See Blanchot, "The FragmentWord (ltorole

de

fragment)": "A new kind of arrangeaccepts

ment not entailing harmony, concordance, or reconciliation, but that

the infinite center out ofwhich, through speech,


an
arrangement that does not compose but juxtarelation is to be created:
poses, that is to say, leaves each of the terms that come into relation ourside
one another, respecting and preserving this erterioriry and this distance as the
principle-always already undercut-of all signification. luxtaposition and interruption here assume an extraordinary force ofjustice" (lC, 3oB)

disjunction or divergence

15

as

ln his Negoriue Dialectics Adorno writes: "Except

among heretics, a[[ Western


peephole
metaphysics.
The
subject-a mere limited
has
been
metaphysics
in
its
own
by
that
metaphysics,
imprisoned for all
locked
up
self
moment-was
punish
As
through
the
crenels
ofa parapet, the
it
for
is
deification.
eternity to
gazes
in
the
star
idea,
or
o[Being,
is said to
upon a black sky which
ofthe
subject
rise. And yet it is the verywall around the subject that casts its shadowon whatever the subject conjures: the shadow ofreification, which a subjective philosophy
will then helplessly fight against" (ND, t39-ao).

r6 See Ulrich Plass's discussion ofAdorno on Borchardt inLonguageandHistoryinTheodor Adorno'sNotes to Literature (New York Routledge, zooT), 73*87.
t7

Gedichte,

zoo3),

ed. Cerhard Schuster und Lars Korten (Stuttgart: Verlag Klett-Cotta,

tto.

r8 (Koln: M. Dumont-schauberg, 1959), l, n.p.


19

the entries by Robert Hullot-Kentor ("Right


Listening and a New Type of Human Being"), Max Paddison ("Authenticity and

The CambridgeCompanionto Adorno: see

Failure in Adorno's Aesthetics of Music"), Lydia Goehr ("Dissonant Works and the
Listening Public"), and Andrew Bowie ("Adorno, Heidegger, and the Meaning of
Music"). With one or two exceptions, there is Iittle close readingof AestheticTheory
in Thomas Huhn and Lambert Zuidervaart, eds., TheSemblance ofSubjecriuiry: Essays
onAdorno'sAestheticTheory, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, r997)--see particularly

ShierryWeberNicholson,"AestheticTheory'sMimesisofWalterBenjamin"(ss.)z);
and Heinz Paetzold, "Adorno's Notion ofNatural Beauty" (213-36).
Ren6e Heberle, ed., FeminisrlnrcrpretationsofTheodorAdorno (University Park:

l\'rrrr

sylvania State University Press, zoo6).

Quoted in willoughby Sharp, "Lawrence Weiner in Amsterdam," Avokrulrc

(Spring r97z): 7r.


as Art," ArtNews 65 (September ry66):72. See also "The Black-Sqtlarc l)ainlings," in ArtasArt:TheselectedWritingsofAdReinhardt, ed. Barbara Rose (Ncw York:

"Art

Viking Press,'rg7 5), 8z-83.

Adams, Bruce. Tiny Reuolutions in Russia:Twentieth-Century

Soviet and Russion History

in Anec'

dotes. New York: Routledge, zoo5.

Adorno, Theodore. AestheticTheory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University ofMinnesota Press, 1997.
7i51hgd5 cheTheorie.

Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, r97o.


Trans. E. F. N. lephcott. London:

lrlinivnq Moralia : Reflections from a Damaged Life.

-. New Left Books, 1974.


-.
Trans. E. B. Ashton. NewYork: Continuum,
Notes

t983'

fo Literlture. z vols. Trans. Shierry weber Nicholson. New York: Columbia

-.NegativeDiolectics.
University Pres s, lggt-g2.

-.

-.

Philosophy of New Music.

Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University

of Minnesota Press, zoo6.


Quosi unaFantosia:Essoyson ModernMusic.Trans. Rodney

Livingstone. London:

Verso, 1998.

-.
Alberro, Alexander, and Blake Stimson, eds. Conceptual Art: ACritical Anthology. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, t999.
Allen, Donald, ed.TheNewAmericanPoerry:ry45-r96o.
Press, r999.

?o

*l

Berkeley: UniversityofCalifornia

Altieri, Charles. "An Aspect of Prynne's Poetics: Autonomy


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['

atic, t2-73,

Borchardt, RudolI r53, r6o-6r

Frye, Northrop,46, 96

Borges, forge Luis, 96, 141-42,149


Brunkhorst, Hauke, 155-56

Gadamer, Hans-Georg, 27, r57

tzo-zt, 46, r54-6t'

56, 77,

q6nzz,r8ont, r88n4; found, tr-rz,


22, 48-So, 8 4-go, :36-40; as garbage,

r88-89n8; "language virus,"

r35-36; "ltself Defi ned," r36; "Surreal-

Gaze, Tim, 4-1S,l-72n31

ro8-u,
t4z-4s;"of theday," 3*6; and Proxim-

ism at Menti[," r35

Ceertz, Clifford, 79,

fi7 nt
Coldsmith, Kenneth, rr-r3, r7tnz6, rytnz7,

ity, z6-z9, t73-74n6;


ro7-B; visual, r3-t7

Burns, Gerald, r34; "Fireplace Poodles,"

Burroughs, William S., 5,

14

Gavreau, Claude, t 4t - 4z

fohn, Sl,6q,8q-BS,94, tz9, t63*64

Caputi, Mary, 164


Celan, Paul, tB, 24, z7-34,

q 4m3, q5nt6,

Graham, Dan, t5o-5r

Guattari,

Lewis, David,

tnz9,

t7

-7 znz9, 77

2n3t

Gossman, Lione[,53,93
Felix. see

Gilles Deleuze

i' :71ng; "Deine Frage,"


z9; "Die Abende," 3r; "Die Fleissigen,"
z9-3o; " Der Me ridian," z4-25, z8;
"Kalk-Krokus, " z7 -28; " Krokus, z5*26;
r77nz4; "Blume

"Weggebeizt," z9; "Wer herrscht," 33*34


complexity (chaos theory), 3-5,
42,75,77,82, rz5, tz7, r34

7, 12, 31,

conceptual art, z, ro, t64, 68n6,


17P72n29

Heidegger, Martin, 24, 25, z7*28, 64, 83,

fi gnq,

ry 4m 4, ]3zm 4
56-7r, 158-59, r8o-8rnr,
t8on3, t8o-8tnr5, r8znr6, r83nt9,

4r.* 42, t5g,

Hejinian,

Lyn,

r83nzz, rB9-9on

$z-$nt7;

p; "fhe

Fatalist,"

My Life in rhe Nineties,

r8tn8,

r8zn6
Helms, Hans G., r54, t6o, t6t-64
Hotderlin, Friedrich, 154, 159-60

Coolidge, Clark, r33

holopoetry, r4-r7

Cooper, Anthony Ashley, r83nzo

Howe, Susan, 35-SS, rygng; "Articulation


of Sound Forms inTime," 4z;"TheDe-

Crane, Hart, ro
Creeley, Robert, 134-35, rTrnz

Danto, Arthur, 168n4


Davidson, Michael, r7rnz5

48,t43,ry4n2

157,

t7t-7znzg, vzn34,

r68n6, r96n3

fragmentary writing, 2,

7, n, 26, 32-34, 37,


ro6,
rn*r3,
r38, t59-6o,
39*q8,16-18,
r77n3o, t98nt4

Fredman, Stephen, t68n3, r69nz

lBrnro

127, 16o,

Mac Cormack, Karen, 72-9o; At lssue,

83-8+; " EMANCI-PATIO," 83 lmplexures,


8q-88; QuirlcsandQuillets, 8r-83; "Re-

union the Reproduction,"

4-lS; " Sleep

3r

lsou, lsidore,

r3

13,

146

Iawis, Simon, D5-28, tg2r.8


Kac, Eduardo,

Kenner, Hugh,

r4-r7

rz-r3, 53,57,59,92 93,

Kosuth, loseph, r68n6


Kristeva, lulia, 69, r49
Kubler, George, D3,127, t34

language, arrarclrir, .,7 .,lt; lltrirl v. syst('lIl'

Palmer, Michael, 24, tz3-25, tz8


Paragram, 121,149
parataxis, zt, 3o, 38, 59-6o, 7 4*77,
12g,154, 158*6o, r9tnr7 r96nt

tto-l6,

Perloff, Marjorie, 14, t6t, r69n4, qzn3o


phrase, 5, 8-g, 62,75*84, tro-tg, rzt, 16o,

r8rnro
Pound, Ezra, 3, 92-93,96, loz, r58
Prynne, l.H.,to6-zz, rz6, t87n3, t88n7
r89nro, tgonrz

Raworth, Tom, D9-33,

193-94n22, r94n1

g, z8-29, r4t' 144,

$3il

Reinhardt, Ad,39, t66

762,777n3o

materiality,

1t-17, 23, 52, 9c., 141-44' 154'

Italy," g5-g6; "A Civil Servant," 97-98;


"Christopher lsherwood Stands on
His Head," roo-r; "Laundry Lists and
Manifestoes," ro4-5; "A PAINTER,"
g+-g5; "POST-ANECDOTAL," 99; "TH REE
SONGS FOR U.

Saroyan, Aram,

131

Silliman, Ron, rtz


singulariry, 6, 42,

Matthias, lohn, 9r-ro5, 184n2 185n15,


r85nr7 r86nzr, t86nz4; "Alexander
Kerensky at Stanfotd," g't; "Automystifstical Plaice," ror-4; "Bakunin in

P.l.I' g6-St; "Tunes for

52, 112-13, 125' 127,137'

t44-46,r69m3
sound, 4z-46, t4r-42

B, 14, 47, 59-6o, t59' qtnz4:.


"sporting Life," ro-rl

Spicer, lack,

Stein, Gertrude, 6, t7,

57, 65,

lyl

q'

n' lg'

86, tzr, t4z-t46,16c,162i "A Little Called


Pauline, " 7 4; Stonzas in Meditotion, 45;
"Van orTwenry Years After: A Portrait
Carl Van Vechten," 144-45

Stevens, Wallace, 2,38, t49

lohn Garvic," 94
Mayer, Bernadette,

Langer, Suzanne, zz

oulipo, g

Sl,6q,8q,t6q'

t58, t77

impossibility,

open form, t7,6t-69,88, t37-4o, t56-58,


r65, r89-9on rz, ry6n2, t96-97n7' $7nt o

Quine, W. V. O., r94ntt

88*9o

Mac Low, f ackson,

Mandelstam, osiP, z4-25, z8

37-38; "118 Westerly Place," 38

,17,

"Three Stanzas," 142

ls lncurable in Our Lifetime," 77'78;Von-

Basilike," 39-42; Hinge Picrure, t6-gl;The


Midnight,48, 50-55; My Emily Dickinson,35,

18on2, r93n13

ethicaliry, 1g-2o, 23-24, z6-27, 3t-gz

t1o-17,

lS-ll' tg' 82,'

Mallarm6, Stdphane,

197n3

Duchamp, Marcel, r-2, r53, r67-68nr,

Lyotard, f ean-FranEois, 62,

fenestration of Prague," 44-45; " Eikon

t8zrr4
Drucker, lohanna,

Lewitt, sol, 10, r.71n29

i0/ Releose,

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Cuattari, 46-47

Derrida, facques, 3r, 64, yzn4o, q7nz7,

to6-to, tt 4-r5, tzo-zt,

r87n4, r88n7 t88n8

q5nr8, q6nzo, q6nzr, t76*77n23,

throtrgh Nostalgia," t48 4r1; "(,lro'.t


Poems," r49-5o; "Hegel's Eycs," r4tr

practice,

laughter, 65-68,7t
Levinas, Emmanuel, 1g-2o, 22, 23, 26'29'
33, 43- 44, q 3n4, q 3n5, t7 4n7

t7

Cage,

as social

r17 4o; "Approprioptl,tptt'.," t4r 4t


"l|('cthovenSonncts," I lt t/l, "lll!,llt

8-to, t7ont9

McCaffery, Steve, 1o4, 173,120-27,


133 -34,137-51 "The Abstract Ruin,"

V:ilery, Paul, t6z, t7 onzz

visual poetry, 11-17, 36-42


voice, zr, 35-36, 45-53, 8r, 85, r7gntz

of